True Crime Entertainment: What’s New This Week

The following content is generally available worldwide, except where otherwise noted. All TV shows listed are for networks and streaming services based in the United States. All movies listed are those released in U.S. cinemas. This schedule is for content and events premiering this week and does not include content that has already been made available.

November 29 – December 5

TV/Streaming Services

All times listed are Eastern Time/Pacific Time, unless otherwise noted.

HBO’s documentary “Adrienne” premieres on Wednesday, December 1 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.

Monday, November 29

“The New York Times Presents”
“The Housewife and the Shah Shocker” (Episode 210)
Monday, November 29, 12 a.m., Hulu

“Fatal Attraction”
“Caught in a Web” (Episode 1120) **Season Finale**
Monday, November 29, 9 p.m., TV One

“Fatal Attraction”
“Drive of Death” (Episode 627) **Season Finale**
Monday, November 29, 10 p.m., TV One

Tuesday, November 30

“Undercover Underage”
“The Dark Web” (Episode 106) **Season Finale**
Tuesday, November 30, 3 a.m. ET/12 a.m. PT, Discovery+

“Dateline”
“Unforgettable: The Grudge”
Tuesday, November 30, 8 p.m., Oxygen

“Life of Crime” (Documentary film)
Tuesday, November 30, 8 p.m., HBO

“Real PD: Kansas City” 
“Return to Grandma” (Episode 104)
Tuesday, November 30, 10 p.m., Investigation Discovery (Also available on Discovery+)

Wednesday, December 1

“Dateline”
“Mean Girls”  
Wednesday, December 1, 8 p.m., Oxygen

“Adrienne” (Documentary film)
Wednesday, December 1, 8 p.m., HBO

“Still a Mystery”
“Far From Home” (Episode 408)
Wednesday, December 1, 9 p.m., Investigation Discovery

“Trafficked With Mariana Zeller”
“Black Market Surgery/In Plain Sight” (Episode 201) **Season Premiere**
Wednesday, December 1, 9 p.m., National Geographic

“Court Cam”
Episode 430
Wednesday, December 1, 9 p.m., A&E

“Court Cam”
Episode 431
Wednesday, December 1, 9:30 p.m., A&E

“Killer Cases”
“The Murder of Mollie Tibbets” (Episode 208)
Wednesday, December 1, 10 p.m., A&E

“See No Evil”
“Hustle Mart Murders” (Episode 804)
Wednesday, December 1, 10 p.m., Investigation Discovery

Thursday, December 2

“Buried in the Backyard: Buried in the Sand”
“Underneath the Sunset” (Episode 403)
Thursday, December 2, 8 p.m., Oxygen

“The First 48”
“The Final Celebration” (Episode 464)
Thursday, December 2, 9 p.m., A&E

“City Confidential”
“Death Dorm” (Episode 705)
Thursday, December 2, 10 p.m., A&E

“Love, Honor, Betray”
“In Those We Trust” (Episode 104)
Thursday, December 2, 9 p.m., Investigation Discovery

Friday, December 3

“The Shrink Next Door”
“The Party” (Episode 106)
Friday, December 3, 12 a.m. ET, Apple TV+

“The Hunt for the Chicago Killer” (Docuseries)
(Episodes 101-103)
Friday, December 3, 3 a.m. ET/12 a.m. PT, Discovery+

“Killer Siblings”
“Kauffman and McMahan” (Episode 301) **Season Premiere**
Friday, December 3, 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT

“Dateline”
TBA
Friday, December 3, 9 p.m., NBC

“20/20”
TBA
Friday, December 3, 9 p.m., ABC

“The New York Times Presents”
“To Live and Die in Alabama” (Episode 211)
Friday, December 3, 10 p.m., FX and Hulu

Saturday, Deember 4

“Cold Justice”
TBA (Episode 609)
Saturday, December 4, 9 p.m., Oxygen

“911 Crisis Center” 
“Teamwork Makes the Dream” (Episode 109)
Saturday, December 4, 9 p.m., Oxygen

“911 Crisis Center” 
TBA (Episode 110)
Saturday, December 4, 9:30 p.m., Oxygen

“48 Hours”
TBA
Saturday, December 4, 10 p.m., CBS

“Deadly Affairs: Betrayed by Love”
“Until Death Do Us Part” (Episode 101) **Series Premiere**
Saturday, December 4, 11 p.m., Investigation Discovery

“Deadly Affairs: Betrayed by Love”
“Love Scam” (Episode 102)
Saturday, December 4, 11:30 p.m., Investigation Discovery

Sunday, December 5

“Snapped”
TBA (Episode 3009)
Sunday, December 5, 6 p.m., Oxygen

“The Real Murders of Orange County”
“If I Can’t Have You…” (Episode 201) **Season Premiere**
Sunday, December 5, 7 p.m., Oxygen

“American Monster”
“Stage Fright” (Episode 706)
Sunday, December 5, 9 p.m.,Investigation Discovery

“Real Life Nightmare”
“Connecticut Murder Mystery (Jennifer Dulos)” (Episode 304) 
Sunday, December 5, 9 p.m., HLN

“Lies, Crime & Video”
“Horror in the Woods (Matthew Hoffman)” (Episode 303) 
Sunday, December 5, 10 p.m., HLN

“On the Case With Paula Zahn”
“‘Precious’ Jane Doe” (Episode 2316)
Sunday, December 5, 10 p.m., Investigation Discovery

Movie Theaters and Home Video

No new true crime movies premiering in theaters or home video this week.

Radio/Podcasts

No new true crime podcast series premiering this week.

Events

Events listed here are not considered endorsements by this website. All ticket buyers with questions or concerns about the event should contact the event promoter or ticket seller directly.

All start times listed are local time, unless otherwise noted.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many in-person events that would normally be in-person are now being held as virtual/online events.

No new true crime events this week.

Review: ‘House of Gucci,’ starring Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto, Jeremy Irons and Al Pacino

November 22, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jared Leto, Florence Andrews, Adam Driver, Lady Gaga and Al Pacino in “House of Gucci” (Photo courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

“House of Gucci”

Directed by Ridley Scott

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1978 to 1997, mostly in Italy and New York City, the dramatic film “House of Gucci” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one Latina and a few Asians) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: After middle-class Patrizia Reggiani marries into the wealthy Gucci family, family members start to battle over the Gucci empire of luxury goods, resulting in one of the family members getting murdered. 

Culture Audience: “House of Gucci” will appeal primarily to fans of the movie’s star-studded cast, the Gucci brand and tawdry true crime movies.

Jeremy Irons in “House of Gucci” (Photo courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

Just like a fake Gucci item, “House of Gucci” is a tacky sham that quickly falls apart. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a high-quality movie, just because of the celebrity names and Oscar pedigrees of the movie’s headlining stars and director. The movie looks good, when it comes to production design, costume design, makeup and hairstyling. But the screenplay is atrocious, the acting is uneven, and director Ridley Scott helmed “House of Gucci” like it’s an idiotic melodrama made for mediocre television, but with a much higher budget than most TV-movies will ever have. (“House of Gucci” even has some laughably bad freeze-frame shots as lazy ways of putting emphasis on a particular emotion.)

It’s all the more reason for viewers to be disappointed that several Oscar winners and Oscar nominees have stepped into this “smoke and mirrors” cesspool of a movie. We all know that the fashion industry is all about image and how someone looks on the outside. That doesn’t mean that a movie about the Gucci empire’s biggest scandal needs to be shallow and superficial too.

The weakest link in “House of Gucci” is the screenplay, written by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna. They adapted the screenplay from Sara Gay Forden’s 2000 book “The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour and Greed.” The “House of Gucci” movie is slipshod in certain details, by getting some basic facts wrong about this notorious murder case. And many parts of this movie are surprisingly dull. Don’t expect there to be any riveting scenes of a murder trial in “House of Gucci.” There aren’t any. There’s a poorly written, anti-climactic courtroom scene that’s rushed into the movie.

The Gucci murder case involved a complex group of real-life people, who are mostly reduced to caricatures in the movie. However, a few of the “House of Gucci” cast members make the film watchable because of their performances: Lady Gaga, Jeremy Irons and Jared Leto. They stand out for completely different reasons.

Lady Gaga is compelling to watch as the scheming Patrizia Reggiani, who was at the center of the Gucci scandal because Reggiani was convicted of masterminding a murder plot. The details of the Gucci murder case are well-documented, but in case anyone reading this review doesn’t know anything about the case before seeing the movie, this review won’t reveal who was murdered. (Although it’s pretty obvious, when you consider who would have to die for Reggiani to inherit a large share of the Gucci fortune.)

Lady Gaga’s performance as Patrizia Reggiani takes a deep dive into campiness, occasionally comes up for air in earnestness, and sometimes lounges around in limpness. Overall, Lady Gaga has the type of on-screen magnetism that even when Patrizia is doing awful things, it’s with the type of villainous charisma where you know this character is capable of convincing some people that she did very bad things for very good reasons.

A campy performance isn’t necessarily a problem if the rest of the actors are on the same wavelength. Unfortunately, “House of Gucci” director Scott failed to bring a cohesive tone to this movie. Other “House of Gucci” actors give performances that are not campy at all but come across as if they truly believe this is a serious, artsy drama worthy of the highest accolades in the movie industry in every top-level category.

That’s the kind of performance that Adam Driver gives in “House of Gucci,” where he portrays Patrizia’s beleagured husband Maurizio Gucci. Maurizio met Patrizia when he was a law student and had no intention of joining the family business. Driver’s portrayal of Maurizio has the type of personality transformation that actors usually relish.

Maurizio goes from being mild-mannered and easily manipulated when he meets Patrizia while he was in law school to becoming a ruthless and recklessly spending businessman who casts Patrizia aside when he decides to move in with his mistress Paola Franchi (played by Camille Cottin) and divorce Patrizia. Their divorce became final in 1994.

“House of Gucci” makes it look like Maurizio abandoned not only Patrizia but essentially neglected their daughter Alessandra after the divorce. The three actresses who portray Alessandra in “House of Gucci” are Nicole Bani Sarkute (Alessandra at 3 years old); Mia McGovern Zaini (Alessandra at 9 years old); and Clelia Rossi Marcelli (teenage Alessandra).

In reality, Patrizia and Maurizio had two children together: daughters Alessandra (born in 1976) and Allegra, born in 1981. The erasure of Allegra from the movie is just one of the many details that “House of Gucci” gets wrong. The movie also changes the timeline of when Patrizia and Maurizio met and got married. In the beginning of the movie, Patrizia meets Maurizio in 1978. In real life, Patrizia and Maurizio met in 1970 and got married in 1972.

In the “House of Gucci” movie version of Patrizia’s life in 1978, she was working as an office manager for her stepfather’s truck transportation business in Milan, Italy. Patrizia and Maurizio meet at a nightclub party of one of his friends. Maurizio is standing behind the bar, and Patrizia mistakes him for the bartender, so she asks him to fix her a drink. Maurizio thinks that she’s confident and sexy. He tells her that she reminds him of Elizabeth Taylor.

Patrizia seems much more interested in Maurizio when he mentions that his last name is Gucci. Patrizia asks Maurizio if he wants to dance. He says no. The scene then cuts to Patrizia and Maurizio dancing together on the dance floor. Patrizia’s persuasive personality sets the tone for much of their relationship.

It seems like the “House of Gucci” filmmakers decided to change this couple’s courtship to take place in the late 1970s solely for the purpose of having disco music in the movie’s scenes that depict the early years of their relationship. After all, Lady Gaga looks better twirling or slow dancing on a 1978 dance floor where there’s a disco ball and Studio 54-type of partiers, instead of a scene at a 1970 party that would probably have to be staged with a bunch of rich-looking hippies.

Therefore, the “House of Gucci” soundtrack serves up its share of disco music, such as Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls,” Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and Donna Summer’s “On the Radio.” Later, when the movie’s timeline goes into the 1980s, the soundtrack features songs such as the Eurythmics hits “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and “Here Comes the Rain Again.” The soundtrack songs often blare in “House of Gucci” in music-video-styled sequences that further cheapen the look of the movie.

The first sign that Patrizia is willing to do whatever it takes to get what she wants is when she stalks Maurizio on campus at his law school. She follows him into a library and pretends to “coincidentally” run into him again. This scene is like something right out of a Lifetime movie. Maurizio has no idea that he’s being targeted, so he goes along with Patrizia’s seduction and is eventually convinced that their relationship is true love.

Irons gives an understated and believable performance as Rodolfo Gucci, Maurizio’s widower father, who is the only Gucci family member who holds on to his dignity in this movie. Rodolfo is immediately suspicious of Patrizia and her intentions for his only child. Rodolfo doesn’t come right out and use the words “gold digger” when he warns Maurizio not to marry Patrizia, but Rodolfo expresses his concerns that Patrizia is not a woman of substance and that she seems to be latching on to Maurizio because of the Gucci family fortune.

Even though Rodolfo vehemently disapproves of Patrizia, it turns out that Rodolfo and Patrizia actually agree on something: They both think that Maurizio should go into the Gucci family business. However, Maurizio’s refusal to follow his father’s wishes leads to him being estranged from Rodolfo for a while.

Maurizio is kicked out of the family home and cut off from his family’s financial support. With nowhere else to go, Maurizio moves in with Patrizia and her parents. Maurizio gets a job working for Patrizia’s stepfather Fernando (played by Vincent Riotta), who’s depicted in the movie as someone who engages in shady business practices.

To put an emphasis on how much Maurizio is estranged from his former life, when Patrizia and Maurizio get married in a church, the movie makes a point of showing that the pews on the bride’s side of the aisle are filled with her family members and friends, while the pews on the groom’s side of the aisle are almost empty. George Michael’s 1987 song “Faith” is played in the movie’s soundtrack after Patrizia and Maurizio exchange vows and walk happily out of the church. This soundtrack choice is an example of more of the movie’s carelessness with details, because the wedding took place years before “Faith” was released and before Michael was even a pop star.

Meanwhile, Rodolfo’s older brother Aldo Gucci (played by Al Pacino, hamming it up in the type of moody roles he’s been doing recently) doesn’t trust Aldo’s dimwitted son Paolo (played by Leto) to be in charge of any part of the family business. Aldo reaches out to Maurizio to come back to the family fold, but Maurizio still hesitates. Patrizia eventually joins forces with Aldo to persuade Maurizio to reconcile with his family and become part of the Gucci business empire. Maurizio eventually agrees, because at this point in his life, he still wants to please Patrizia. For a while, Patrizia and Maurizio made their home base in New York City during Maurizio’s rise in the Gucci business.

More scheming and manipulations ensue, exactly like how you expect them to play out in a movie that is plagued with clumsy clichés. Patrizia and Maurizio are not shown having any meaningful conversations that are not about his family, money or business. In other words, the movie falls short of convincing viewers that Maurizio and Patrizia had a deep emotional love that would make him blind to her gold-digging ways.

Maurizio and Patrizia have a passionate sex life in the beginning of their relationship, so the movie implies that lust, not love, was what really brought this couple together. The sex scenes in “House of Gucci” aren’t very sexy because they look more like parodies of soap-opera-styled sex. Items on tables are shoved aside and crash on the floor to make room on the table for whatever sex act occurs. Any vigorous thrusting doesn’t look erotic but looks more like someone having a robotic workout routine at a gym. And the orgasms sound very fake.

It’s not much of a surprise that “House of Gucci” is a very “straight male gaze” movie where only women’s nude private parts are shown, not men’s nude private parts. And speaking of people in “House of Gucci” in various states of undress, this movie has a semi-obsession with Patrizia being seen in bathtubs or saunas. Apparently, the filmmakers want viewers to think that life is supposed to be more luxurious if you take baths instead of showers.

The supporting characters in “House of Gucci” are either over-the-top ridiculous (Salma Hayek as Giuseppina “Pina” Auriemma, a self-described psychic who befriends Patrizia), or bland as bland as can be (Jack Huston as Gucci financial advisor Domenico De Sole; Reeve Carney as fashion designer Tom Ford) with no intriguing personalities. Pina is a stereotypical con artist who gives vague predictions to Patrizia (“I see a big fortune coming your way”) and mystical-sounding advice, such as telling Patrizia that Patrizia should wear more red for “protection” and more green for “cleansing.”

The fashion industry is a mere backdrop to the betrayals and lies that usually originate from Patrizia and spread like a virus to other members of the Gucci family. For example, “House of Gucci” wastes an opportunity to give a fascinating insider’s look at the Gucci empire. Instead, the movie gives trite portrayals of the massive reinvention that the Gucci brand underwent from the 1970s to the 1990s. The movie serves up a fast-food version of what happened on the business side of the Gucci story.

“House of Gucci” unrealistically makes it look like it was only Patrizia who had the business sense to tell the family in the 1980s that it was devaluing the Gucci name by licensing the brand to cheap-quality merchandise, and that they needed to go back to Gucci being synonymous with luxury. The Gucci brand was then repositioned as “hip/trendy” (not old-fashioned) luxury. For all of her supposed business skills, Patrizia isn’t actually showing doing any real work as a so-called Gucci powerhouse. According to this movie, all she seems to be good at doing is telling people what to do.

The “House of Gucci” role of fashion designer Ford, a native of Texas who is credited with helping further reinvent the Gucci brand in the 1990s, is literally a walk-on role: The most memorable things that he does in the movie is give the traditional end-of-show designer stroll on a runway after showing a collection, and when Ford reads a newspaper article that praises him, he walks out of the room to say that he can’t wait to call his mother.

At no point in the movie is anyone in the Gucci empire shown having a strong relationship with Ford, even though he was a driving force at Gucci, where he worked from 1990 to 2004, with most of those years spent as Gucci’s creative director. There are some hints that De Sole had his own agendas and ambitions, but the character is written in a completely boring and hollow way. Unless you’re a fashion aficionado who knows about De Sole and his further ascent in the Gucci empire, you might have a hard time remembering his name after watching this movie.

“House of Gucci” is also problematic in how it portrays women, because the three female characters with the most prominent speaking roles are either villains (Patrizia and Pina) or a mistress (Paola). Vogue magazine editorial executive Anna Wintour (played by Catherine Walker), actress Sophia Loren (played by Mãdãlina Ghenea) and Paolo’s wife Jenny Gucci (played by Florence Andrews) have meaningless cameos in “House of Gucci.” Even back in the 1970s to 1990s, when this movie takes place, women were so much more important in the fashion industry than what “House of Gucci” makes it look like.

Out of all the portrayals of the Gucci men in “House of Gucci,” Leto’s performance as Paolo is the flashiest one. Much of the performance’s standout qualities have to do with the top-notch prosthetics that Leto wears to make him look like a completely different person who is heavier and older than Leto’s real physical appearance. However, Leto does show some actor panache by having an amusing Italian accent, and he plays Paolo’s buffoon role to the hilt, bringing some intentional comedic moments.

Leto’s performance is only marred by some silly-looking scenes, such as when Paolo does an awkward dance of jubilation with Patrizia when she deceives aspiring fashion designer Paolo into thinking that his horrendous fashions are fabulous and worthy of being part of the Gucci brand. It’s the type of scene that looks like something Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd would’ve rejected for their Two Wild and Crazy Guys act on “Saturday Night Live.” Paolo’s words and actions get more cartoonish as the movie goes along. A low point is when Paolo urinates on a Gucci scarf in a fit of anger.

Unfortunately, the best performance efforts by the “House of Gucci” cast members can’t overcome the very cringeworthy screenplay that ruins this movie. In one scene, when Patrizia and Maurizio have an argument, she chokes up with tears and says: “I had no idea I married a monster.” He replies coldly, “You didn’t. You married a Gucci.” In another scene, Pina snarls at someone, “Don’t fuck this up, ’cause I’ll put a spell on you!” In another scene, Paolo says, “Never confuse shit with chocolate. They may look the same, but they’re very different. Trust me, I know!”

The Paolo character might want to warn people not to confuse defecation with chocolate, but viewers should be warned not to confuse “House of Gucci” with being a superb film. For a movie that’s supposed to be about a haute couture/luxury fashion brand, it wallows in the muck of cheap gimmicks, sloppy screenwriting and a lack of self-awareness about how horrendous the worst parts are. The end result is a tawdry mess. And you can’t erase the stink from that.

Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures will release “House of Gucci” in U.S. cinemas on November 24, 2021.

Review: ‘Finding Kendrick Johnson,’ starring Kenneth Johnson Sr., Jackie Johnson, Kenyatta Johnson, Lydia Tooley Whitlock, Malik Austin, Mitch Credle and William Anderson

August 30, 2021

by Carla Hay

Kendrick Johnson in “Finding Kendrick Johnson” (Photo courtesy of Kendrick Johnson Family/Gravitas Ventures)

Finding Kendrick Johnson”

Directed by Jason Pollock

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Valdosta, Georgia, the true crime documentary “Finding Kendrick Johnson” features a predominantly African American group of people representing the working-class and middle-class who are connected in some way the case of Kendrick Johnson, a 17-year-old student from Valdosta who died a suspicious death in his high school gym in 2013.

Culture Clash: Several people in the documentary say that Johnson was murdered due to racism and jealousy, and the crime was covered up because the main person of interest is the son of a white man who was an FBI agent at the time of Johnson’s death.

Culture Audience: “Finding Kendrick Johnson” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries investigating mysteries that involve civil rights issues and racial injustice.

Kenneth Johnson Sr. and Jackie Johnson in “Finding Kendrick Johnson” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

In the never-ending flow of true crime documentaries that are being made and released, “Finding Kendrick Johnson” has an emotional resonance that might stay with viewers longer than most movies about unsolved mysteries. This film is clear from the beginning about its agenda of taking the side of the victim’s family. The purpose of the movie, according to an announcement early on in the film, is to bring more awareness and present new facts in the baffling death case of Kendrick Johnson, so that people can make up their own minds.

He was a lively and beloved 17-year-old who was a student at Lowndes High School in Valdosta, Georgia. In 2013, his bloodied body was found stuffed in a gym mat in a school gym, and he is believed to have died the day before while classes were in session. His death was initially ruled as an accident, but his family has been fighting to have the death ruling changed to homicide and for justice to be served. And they think they know who committed the alleged crime.

This documentary (which is narrated by actress Jenifer Lewis, one of the movie’s executive producers) does a very good job of putting the case in the context of America’s very shameful history of racism, since many people believe that Johnson’s death and how authorities mishandled the investigation have a lot to do with racism against African Americans. Sensitive viewers should be warned: The documentary has several nauseating photos of murdered people (including Emmett Till) after they were lynched or beaten to death. There are also very graphic photos of Johnson’s dead body, including his bloodied and swollen face.

Directed by Jason Pollock, “Finding Kendrick Johnson” also uncovers video surveillance footage that seems to damage the credibility of former Lowndes High School student Brian Bell, who has been named repeatedly as someone who might know more about Johnson’s death than he’s willing to admit. Bell, who has not been named as a suspect, has maintained that he was in a classroom at the time of the death and that he never saw Johnson that day. However, surveillance video footage that was uncovered by filmmaker Pollock and his team—and revealed to the public for the first time in this documentary—shows Bell walking less than two feet behind Johnson in a school hallway on the day that Johnson died.

What exactly happened in that gym on January 10, 2013? Everyone agrees that’s when and where Johnson died. What people don’t agree on is how he died. Was it an accident or was it murder? And if it was murder, who committed the crime? Because this case has gotten a lot of media coverage, most of “Finding Kendrick Johnson” might not be surprising to people who already know a lot of the facts related to the case.

However, the filmmakers seem determined to do more than rehash previous news reports and joined in the family’s quest to uncover more evidence to re-open the case. (The outcome of all this hard work is revealed in the movie’s epilogue.) Several family members are interviewed, such as Kenneth Johnson Sr. (Kendrick’s father), Jackie Johnson (Kendrick’s mother), Kenyatta Johnson (Kendrick’s older sister), Lydia Tooley Whitlock (Kendrick’s aunt) and Barbara English (Kendrick’s grandmother).

They all describe Kendrick as loving, playful, and the type of person who was the most likely in the family to cheer someone up when they were feeling down. He was a well-liked student who played on the school’s basketball team. Kendrick’s two other siblings—Kenneth Johnson Jr. and Kenya Johnson —are not interviewed for the documentary. Kenneth Sr. (a truck driver) and Jackie have lived in Valdosta their entire lives, as have their children.

Kendrick’s parents both say that when Kendrick didn’t come home on the night of January 10, 2013, they instinctively knew by midnight that he was dead. His body was found by a female student in the school gym on January 11, 2013, at about 10:30 a.m. Many people immediately suspected foul play because his body was upside down in a rolled-up gym mat that was about 6 feet tall. Blood was near his head, and his face had significant bruising, as if he had been in a recent fight. There were also recent cuts on his hands that looked like fight injuries.

There were three pairs of athletic shoes near the body that could have had crucial clues, but some people in the documentary believe that the shoes were evidence that was either tampered with or not properly tested. According to the photos taken by investigators, the first pair of shoes were black with orange laces and with mysterious red splotches that looks a lot like blood. The owner of these shows has not been identified, and investigators will only say that the red splotches were not blood.

The other two pairs of shoes belonged to Kendrick: one pair was white, and these shoes were located beside his body, inside the gym mat. The other pair was black, and these black shoes were identified as the ones that Kendrick would wear for his everyday activities, not his gym activities. After his body was found, the documentary states that the black shoes look liked they had been meticulously cleaned—too pristine for anyone who was wearing those shoes on a regular basis and who was unlikely to wash the shoes at school that day.

Investigators initially presented a theory that Kendrick accidentally died while trying to reach for his white athletic shoes in the center hole of the rolled-up the gym mat, and he accidentally go stuck and suffocated to death. It was common for people to use different shoes inside the gym and outside the gym. Those who did use different shoes often had a habit inside the gym of placing the shoes they weren’t using underneath rolled-up gym mats that were stacked vertically.

Therefore, people who believe that Kendrick died from foul play say that it doesn’t make sense that he would try to get his gym shoes by crawling through the center of a rolled-up gym mat when all he would have to do is move the gym mat to retrieve the shoes. Kendrick was 5’10” and the rolled-up gym mat he was found in was about 6 feet tall. His shoulders were about 19 inches wide, while the rolled-up gym mat his body was found in had a center hole that was 14 inches wide.

Nevertheless, the initial ruling by investigators was that Kendrick accidentally died by squeezing himself into the center of the gym mat and suffocating to death. Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office investigator Stryde Jones is seen in archival news footage being one of the chief people who was adamant in stating that Kendrick’s death was an accident. And what about the bruises on Kendrick’s face and the blood near his head? The ruling was that those injuries could have happened while Kendrick was stuck and trying frantically to get out from inside the gym mat. Does that make sense to you?

The documentary also mentions there were are also signs that come crucial evidence was tampered with or went missing:

  • Time-stamped video surveillance footage inside the school from 12:04 p.m. to 1:09 p.m. on January 10, 2013—which is widely believed to be the time frame in which Kendrick died—has gone missing or is unaccounted for, according to several people interviewed in the movie. The documentary includes surveillance footage that is available, including the last images of Kendrick alive in the school.
  • A gray hooded sweatshirt with blood on it was found near Kendrick’s body, but Kendrick did not own the sweatshirt, and no one has claimed ownership of it. The documentary states that this sweatshirt has not been tested for DNA.
  • The blood on the gym walls was tested and did not match Kendrick’s blood. According to investigators, the blood belongs to another person whom they say they have not been able to identify.
  • Kendrick’s organs were removed (which is standard procedure in an autopsy), but somehow the organs ended up missing. The medical examiner’s office, police crime lab and the funeral home that were in contact with Kendrick’s body will not take responsibility for the missing organs. Kendrick’s body was exhumed twice to be re-examined. During the first re-examination, newspaper shreddings were found where Kendrick’s organs should have been.

The Johnson family hired an independent investigator named Dr. William “Bill” Anderson, whose specialty is forensic autopsies and clinical pathology. Because Dr. Anderson was not the person who did the first autopsy of Kendrick’s body, he had to rely on autopsy photos and the official medical report to try to make some sense of the initial analysis of the organs that have gone missing. Dr. Anderson says in the documentary, “One of the things that immediately stuck out was the findings that the lungs had no fluid.” Dr. Anderson adds that lungs filled with fluid is a telltale sign of asphyxia, so he thinks it’s highly unlikely that Kendrick died from suffocation.

What really happened? Several people, including Kendrick’s family members and his good friend/schoolmate Malik Austin, say in the documentary that they believe that Kendrick was killed during a fight, probably with more than one person. At the top of their suspect list is Bell, who had previously lost a fight that he started with Kendrick on a school bus. Austin was one of several people who witnessed this altercation on the school bus. He says that Bell was the one who instigated it, like a “bully.” Kendrick only fought back in self-defense, and he easily won the fight.

But to say that Bell had a motive isn’t evidence. Bell, who was a star on the Lowndes High School football team at the time, has always maintained that he had nothing to do with Kendrick’s death. One of the flaws in the documentary is how it doesn’t say either way if there’s proof that Bell was truthful in his alibi that he was in a classroom during the time that Kendrick died. Where are the witnesses who could corroborate that alibi if it’s true? If the alibi isn’t true, and he snuck out of class during the time of Kendrick’s death, there’s no surveillance footage available.

Brian Bell’s father, Rick Bell, was an influential FBI agent at the time of Kendrick’s death. People who believe that Kendrick was murdered say that it’s been covered up by a vast conspiracy because of Rick Bell’s connections. There’s also been speculation that if Brian Bell committed the murder, then he had an accomplice because Brian Bell allegedly knew he wouldn’t be able to fight Kendrick on his own.

The documentary presents some hearsay evidence from an unidentified female witness (who was underage at the time, so her identity is protected), who gave a statement back in 2013 that she heard from a female friend that Kendrick had slept with her, even though this female friend was dating another guy whose father worked for the FBI. According to what this unidentified hearsay witness heard, the jealous boyfriend, who knew about the infidelity, admitted to his girlfriend that he got revenge on Kendrick by killing him, with help from a male friend who had recently transferred back to Lowndes High School.

This hearsay statement, which would not be admissible in court, goes on to mention that the brother of the jealous boyfriend knew about the murder and didn’t feel comfortable helping his brother cover it up. Brian Bell has a brother named Branden Bell, who has also publicly denied anything do with Kendrick’s death and stated that his alibi was that he wasn’t even at the school when Kendrick died.

The documentary has archival news footage of Brian and Branden Bell proclaiming that they had nothing to do with Kendrick’s death. It’s not stated in the documentary if the filmmakers reached out to Brian, Branden and/or Rick Bell (who has since resigned from the FBI) to get any comments or interviews. Even if the filmmakers did reach out to the Bell family, it’s unlikely that anyone in the Bell family would want to participate in the documentary, which is admittedly biased in favor of the Johnson family.

The documentary also does not mention the name of the “transfer student” who was an alleged “accomplice” in Kendrick’s death. And the name of the cheating girlfriend isn’t mentioned either. Those are gaps in the documentary that needed filling in, even if to state whether or not the filmmakers tried to contact these possible witnesses to get comments or interviews. There’s a brief caption in the documentary that all people alleged to be involved in Kendrick’s death have denied any involvement.

The Johnson family and their supporters (including activist Stephanie Martin) say in the documentary that they had hope that U.S. attorney Michael Moore (not to be confused with filmmaker Michael Moore) would make progress when he announced that he was re-opening the case because there was too much doubt that Kendrick’s death was accidental. However, the hope turned to disappointment when Moore abruptly resigned as U.S. attorney in 2015, and he went to work for a private law firm. Jackie Johnson doesn’t mince words when she says why she thinks that Moore quit as U.S. attorney: “Those people scared him out of his job.”

Kendrick’s case then took an highly unusual turn, when seven judges recused themselves to review the case, and the case was moved all the way from Georgia to Ohio. Keep in mind that the crime took place in Valdosta, Georgia, where Kendrick, his siblings and parents have lived their entire lives. Atlanta-based civil rights activist Tyrone Brooks says in the documentary that “it was mind-boggling” that the case was moved to a state thousands of miles away from Georgia, when Kendrick and the scene of his death have nothing do with Ohio.

Mitch Credle, a Washington, D.C.-based homicide detective who investigated the case for the U.S. attorney’s office, sums up why he thinks there are too many suspicious signs that point to a cover-up: “What made me think that everything was a cover-up was—for me, as an experienced homicide detective—that first meeting with the medical examiner. Body parts were missing. Evidence was missing. That’s another red flag.”

Later in the documentary, a stunned Credle is shown for the first time a still frame from the video surveillance footage that shows Brian Bell walking close behind Kendrick Johnson in a school hallway on the day that Kendrick died—a direct contradiction to Brian Bell’s longstanding claim that he never even saw Kendrick that day. Is he lying or his memory faulty? Credle expresses shock and dismay that he never saw this surveillance footage before it was brought to his attention by the documentary team. And this longtime homicide detective thinks that this footage severely damages Brian Bell’s credibility in relation to this case.

Although “Finding Kendrick Johnson” is about this particular case, the documentary also wants viewers to look at the bigger picture of how many other people—particularly black people—have experienced racial injustice in a U.S. system of law enforcement that disproportionately treats black people worse than other races. The documentary asks the question that people who aren’t naïve know the answer to: If Kendrick Johnson had been white, and if a black schoolmate had been rumored to be involved in his death, how would the outcome in the case be different?

The documentary includes some history of racial injustice against black people in the Valdosta area, including the notorious 1918 lynching of pregnant Mary Turner. She and her unborn baby (who was ripped from her womb and stomped to death) were murdered by an angry white mob just because she protested the lynching of her husband. Although many people would like to think that America’s worst racism is in the past, the point that the documentary makes is this type of damaging racism that has been passed down from generations just doesn’t suddenly go away when new civil rights laws are passed.

It remains to be seen what the final outcome of the Kendrick Johnson case will be, but his family members and other supporters say that they will never give up their fight to get justice for Kendrick. Regardless of how people think Kendrick died, his death is still a tragedy. “Finding Kendrick Johnson” might not have the answers to his death, but it seems like the documentary has the noble intention to help the Johnson family find some measure of peace in their ongoing nightmare with the legal system.

Gravitas Ventures released “Finding Kendrick Johnson” on digital and VOD on July 30, 2021. The movie will be released in select U.S. cinemas on October 29, 2021.

Review: ‘Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman,’ starring Chad Michael Murray

August 16, 2021

by Carla Hay

Chad Michael Murray in “Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman” (Photo courtesy of Dark Star Pictures/Voltage Pictures)

“Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman”

Directed by Daniel Farrands

Culture Representation: Taking place in Washington state, Utah and Florida, from 1974 to 1989, the true crime/horror film “Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Hispanics) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Real-life serial killer Ted Bundy goes on a murder spree targeting adolescent girls and young women, as law enforcement officials try to apprehend him. 

Culture Audience: “Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching tacky and exploitative re-enactments of true crime cases.

Jake Hays and Holland Roden in “Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman” (Photo courtesy of Dark Star Pictures/Voltage Pictures)

“Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman” is the type of vile and idiotic movie that seems to delight in exploiting the murder sprees of serial killer Ted Bundy, who was imprisoned and electrocuted for his crimes. Too bad there’s no “filmmaker jail” for people who’ve made careers out of dumping this type of horrific garbage into the world. Everything about this movie is laughably amateurish, but it’s actually not funny to see how disrespectfully these filmmakers have treated a real-life horror story where people’s lives were destroyed. The movie has very little regard for these victims because the movie’s focus is on glorifying their murderer as if he’s some kind of legendary horror character.

“Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman” was written and directed by Daniel Farrands, whose early career included producing documentary content for fictional horror movies such as “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Friday the 13th.” But now, as a feature-film director, he’s made it his specialty to do extremely cheesy dramatic versions of true crimes, beginning with 2018’s “The Amityville Murders” and continuing with 2019’s controversial schlockfests “The Haunting of Sharon Tate” and “The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson.”

Next on Farrands’ list of true crime stories to annihilate into irredeemable oblivion are “Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman” and “Aileen Wuornos: American Boogeywoman,” both set for release in 2021. Since there’s no shortage of notorious murders, we can assume that Farrands will keep shamelessly churning out this type of disgraceful dreck until he decides to stop. Farrands is also a producer of the trashy movies that he directs.

True crime stories and stories about real murderers will continue to be made into scripted films and TV projects. But a lot of what’s worth watching depends on the quality of these projects and how respectful these projects are to the victims. You don’t have to be a psychic to know that there’s a massive difference in the quality of 2003’s “Monster” (for which Charlize Theron won an Oscar for portraying Aileen Wuornos) and the tabloid-like excrement of “Aileen Wuornos: American Boogeywoman.”

Other actors have portrayed Bundy before—most notably, Mark Harmon in the 1986 NBC miniseries “The Deliberate Stranger,” Billy Campbell in the 2003 USA Network movie “The Stranger Beside Me” and Zac Efron in the 2019 Netflix film “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.” Luke Kirby portrays Bundy in the 2021 RLJE Films drama “No Man of God,” which is set for release on August 27, and got mostly positive reviews after the movie’s world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. Chad Michael Murray is woefully miscast as Bundy in “Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman” and is easily the worst portrayal of this notorious serial killer.

In addition to his subpar acting, Murray is in a cheap-looking wig and creepy moustache for the majority of the movie, even though the real Bundy was clean-shaven for most of his crime spree. It doesn’t help that Murray and the rest of the cast are given cringeworthy dialogue that wouldn’t even pass muster in an amateur film made by teenagers in someone’s backyard. “Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman” offers no real insight into Bundy’s psychology at all, unless you consider it illuminating that he keeps repeating in the movie things like “I’m invisible” and “I am no one” when he commits his crimes.

Bundy’s murder sprees took place in many U.S. states, including Washington, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Oregon, California and Florida. He is believed to have murdered about 100 women and girls, but he confessed to 30 and was ultimately convicted of murdering three females, as well as attempted murder and kidnapping for some of his victims who escaped. Most of his victims were sexually assaulted, even after death. There are plenty of books, documentaries and news reports that have the disgusting details of his crimes.

Because “Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman” is a low-class, low-budget film, the movie only focuses on four law enforcement officials who worked on these cases of missing and murdered Bundy victims. Two of these law enforcement officials get the most screen time and all the credit in this movie for apprehending Bundy, who had escaped from jail in Colorado twice and was arrested for the last time in Florida after another killing spree. This movie is so highly inaccurate, the scene where Bundy is captured in Florida only has one cop going into the building to arrest him, and two other cops showing up later. In real life, Bundy’s fugitive status and notoriety would have warranted a large team of law enforcement to be there to take him down.

There’s a disclaimer before the movie’s opening credits that admits that parts of the movie were fabricated for dramatic purposes. Still, there’s so much that’s hard to take with how moronically everything is staged in the movie and how horrific the acting is. Holland Roden, who portrays real-life Seattle police detective Kathleen McChesney, could get a M.A. degree from this movie alone, if M.A. stood for “melodramatic acting.” Most of her performance looks like an unintentionally bad parody.

Kathleen is portrayed as the only woman on a small Seattle police task force that is investigating Bundy. She has to deal with two very sexist co-workers—a father-and-son lunkhead duo named Capt. Herb Swindley (played by Anthony DeLongis) and Shane Swindley (played by Sky Patterson), who assumes he’s eventually going to be promoted into his father’s job. The movie tries to make up for its rampant female exploitation by making Kathleen the biggest hero of the story.

Too bad they also make Kathleen say and do a lot of dumb things that no self-respecting cop would do, such as go without any backup into a building to arrest armed and dangerous Bundy. In an early scene, Kathleen is giving a lecture to other cops on the task force about the evidence gathered so far. Bundy had a type of victim whom he liked to target: adolescent girls and young women with long dark hair, usually parted in the middle.

Misogynistic cop Shane comments that some of the victims might have had other things in common: long legs and short skirts. He smirks that the victims were “the type that’s maybe out for a good time. Maybe they led this guy on. You know how the old saying goes: ‘If they’re advertising, they must be selling.'” Kathleen replies, “If stupidity were painful, Shane, you’d be in agony.” That’s what’s supposed to pass for “witty” dialogue in this brain-rotting film.

Meanwhile, FBI investigator/profiler Robert Ressler (played by Jake Hays) shows up at this Seattle police station, to inform the cops that the federal government is taking over the investigation. Capt. Swindley is angry about this change in command, because he thinks that the FBI is intruding on an investigation that he wants to lead. This toxic boss also makes a point of telling Robert that Kathleen was only hired as a token female, so that she could “soften up the witnesses” when needed.

Needless to say, any enemy of the Swindleys becomes a fast friend of Kathleen’s. The rest of the movie’s “investigation” essentially just shows Robert and Kathleen working on the case, even though in reality, there were dozens of law enforcement officials (federal, state and local) who were involved in investigating all of Bundy’s widespread crimes. Just because a movie has a low budget to hire a relatively small number of actors doesn’t mean that a movie has to lie about the truth.

In real life, Robert Ressler was credited with coming up with the term “serial killer.” However, this movie makes it look like it was Kathleen McChesney’s idea, and she generously let Ressler take all the credit for it. The scene is badly written as Kathleen comparing serial killers (originally called sequence killers) to serials on television, “because they leave people wanting more. It’s a never-ending cycle.”

Except that it’s law enforcement’s job to stop these serial killings, so that these murders shouldn’t be a “never-ending cycle” from the same person. In response to her asinine comment, Robert says to Kathleen, “You’re going to make one hell of an agent someday, McChesney!” In real life, McChesney eventually did join the FBI to great success, but it’s an insult to her that she’s portrayed as such an over-the-top drama queen in this movie. (By contrast, Hays’ portrayal of Robert Ressler is so bland, it makes barely an impression at all.)

The movie makes Kathleen look like she’s trying to be in Charlie’s Angels, because her long, flowing red hair is worn unrestrained and styled like an actress. In real life, cops who have very long hair usually have to wear their hair pinned up or pinned back while on the job, because long hair can get in the way of their vision if they have to run or fight. Long hair worn unrestrained also makes it easier for an assailant to attack by pulling the hair. It’s standard police procedure to wear long hair in a restrained way, but don’t expect this movie to care about a lot of realistic details.

Bundy’s kidnappings, assaults and murders are filmed just like a violent horror movie, but the filmmakers surprisingly had some restraint by not really showing a lot of the actual physical impact when Bundy bludgeons someone to death. The gruesome sound editing gives people enough of an idea of what’s going on during these blood-soaked scenes. The sexual assaults are not as explicit as some people might think they would be. However, there’s still plenty of disturbing violence that will nauseate people who get easily squeamish.

Even though there are horror movies that are much more graphic with blood and gore than this film, what’s offensive about “Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman” is that it treats the victims as just boxes to check off in Bundy’s “to do” list. The movie re-creates two of his most well-known methods to lure his victims into his Volkswagen Beetle: He either pretended to have an injured arm or injured leg and asked for help near his car, or he pretended to be an undercover cop who told the victim that he saw someone try to break into her car and she needed to come with him to the police station to file a report.

However, the movie makes some of these scenarios pathetically unrealistic. In the movie’s opening scene—which takes place on October 18, 1974, at a pizza place in Midway, Utah—two young female friends (who are in their late teens) become Bundy victims. Their names are Jill (played by Gianna Adams) and Melissa (played by Julianne Collins), and they both encounter Bundy separately, within minutes of each other. One of the pals avoids getting harmed, while the other one doesn’t.

Jill has gone outside to smoke a cigarette, when she sees Bundy (using crutches to fake a leg injury) in the pizza place’s back parking lot. He looks very suspicious, because he’s wearing a face covering from his nose down, like a burglar would. Bundy asks for Jill’s help in picking up his car keys, which are on the ground. And when she hands the keys to him, he drops the keys again—this time, underneath his car. And Jill still falls for this obvious ruse. Her friend Melissa comes out of the pizza place, just minutes later.

Here’s the thing: In real life, Bundy didn’t cover his face like that when approaching victims, because he wanted to catch the victims off guard by gaining their trust. He also told them his real first name. That’s how over-confident he was in not getting caught. It ended up being his undoing when one of his victims escaped and testified against him. And several women who didn’t fall for his scams also reported his suspicious activities to law enforcement.

Another more ridiculous scenario is staged in the movie in a nighttime scene that takes place on October 31, 1974, in American Fork, Utah. Bundy is driving in his Volkswagen Beetle on a secluded road that’s deserted except for a young woman named Laura (played by Gabrielle Haugh), whom he follows and asks, “Need a lift?”

She immediately yells at him, “Fuck off and die!” He gets angry, stops the car, and runs after her. And instead of running toward an area where people will be, Laura runs into a dark greenhouse, thereby making it easy for Bundy to find her in that enclosed space. It’s so predictably stupid.

The movie also depicts Bundy’s abduction of the real-life Carol DaRonch (played by Olivia DeLaurentis) on November 8, 1974, in Murray, Utah. This time, Bundy uses his undercover cop scam in this kidnapping. Carol mistakenly gets in his car, instead of following him in her own car. Carol manages to escape but not before Bundy hits her on the head with a crowbar. He lets out a howl of frustration that might make people laugh at how terrible Murray’s acting is in this scene.

It gets worse. Bundy’s real-life obsession with violent pornography is depicted in the movie in ways that you can’t un-see, such as Bundy masturbating to this type of porn, which he looks at in magazines. The movie doesn’t show anything extremely explicit—just quick images of scantily clad female body parts, but no actuall full-frontal nudity. If you waited your whole life to see Chad Michael Murray as a vicious serial murderer in a movie where he’s shown getting off on sleazy snuff porn, then “Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman” is the movie for you.

At one point, just like in real life, Bundy (using the alias Chris Hagen) is shown renting a room at a mostly female boarding house near the Florida State University campus, after the second time he escaped from jail in Colorado. The boarding house’s manager Dottie (played by Alice Prime) was an aspiring fashion designer and still keeps many nude female mannequins inside the house. You know what comes next: There are scenes where Bundy is alone with the mannequins, and he starts kissing the mannequins like the pervert that he is. It’s implied that he does other things to the mannequins besides kiss them.

And then it turns into a weird hallucinatory scene (complete with psychedelic red lighting) of Bundy imagining himself rolling around on a bed with three hooded women dressed in dominatrix gear, while one of the women hits him with a club. At the end of the scene, it’s shown that Bundy actually took some of the house’s mannequins and was role playing this sex scene with the mannequins, which are now dismembered.

Horror film “scream queen” Lin Shaye embarrasses herself in her unhinged performance as Louise Bundy, Ted’s biological mother who comes across as having disturbing psychological problems of her own, except that she’s not a murderer. A famous true story about Ted is that he found out a dark family secret when he was a young man: The woman he thought was his older sister was actually his mother, who gave birth to him out of wedlock, and his mother’s parents raised him as their own son.

In the movie, Louise hints that Ted was born from incest rape by Louise’s abusive father, although in real life there was never any concrete evidence presented to prove who Ted’s real biological father was. Louise says like a woman possessed, “Father used to say that Ted was conceived in hell. I suppose that would make him the devil!” Louise is in the movie for just two scenes—both with her being interviewed by Kathleen and Robert. The second scene is one of the worst in this bottom-of-the-barrel trash dump of a movie.

If you still have the stomach to watch this movie until the very end (which includes a ludicrous re-enactment of Ted Bundy’s 1989 death by electrocution at the age of 42), you will learn nothing new or interesting about this notorious criminal, his victims or the real story of how he was caught by law enforcement. The only thing you will learn is that this movie will surely hold the title of the worst movie ever made about Ted Bundy. This isn’t just like watching a train wreck. It’s like watching a nuclear bomb of extremely bad taste and putrid filmmaking.

Dark Star Pictures and Voltage Pictures released “Ted Bundy: An American Boogeyman” in select U.S. cinemas (through Fathom Events) for one night only on August 16, 2021. The movie’s release date on digital, VOD and DVD is on September 3, 2021.

Review: ‘Enemies of the State’ (2021), starring Paul DeHart, Leann DeHart, Gabriella Coleman, Adrian Humphreys, Carrie Daughtrey, Brett Kniss and Larry Butkowsky

August 10, 2021

by Carla Hay

A 1990s family photo of Paul DeHart, Leann DeHart and Matt DeHart in “Enemies of the State” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Enemies of the State” (2021)

Directed by Sonia Kennebeck

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the U.S. and Canada, the true crime documentary “Enemies of the State” features an all-white group of people discussing the controversial case of computer hacker Matt DeHart, an American who became a fugitive of the law with his parents Paul and Leann DeHart when they defied his house arrest and they all fled to Canada.

Culture Clash: Matt DeHart was accused of luring underage teenage boys into creating child pornography, but Matt and his parents claim that Matt is not guilty of these charges, and that he is the victim of a conspiracy to prevent Matt from going public about dangerous secrets he uncovered about the U.S. government.

Culture Audience: “Enemies of the State” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries about international fugitives or government conspiracy theories and don’t mind if there are no easy solutions presented at the end of the movie.

Re-enactment actors Christopher Clark, Joel Widman and Suzanne Pratley in “Enemies of the State” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

The documentary “Enemies of the State” comes across as a compilation of interviews and re-enactments rather than an investigation that reaches a firm judgment about what really happened in a case involving numerous accusations. People who don’t mind open-ended conclusions to a movie will probably like this documentary more than people who expect mysteries to be solved by the end of the film. The movie keeps viewers guessing on who’s really telling the truth.

Directed by Sonia Kennebeck, “Enemies of the State” does a fairly good job of presenting various perspectives of a complicated matter. At times, the documentary looks like a TV-movie-of-the week docudrama, because a lot of screen time is devoted to re-enactments with actors. However, the documentary’s subject matter is intriguing enough and presented in clear-enough ways that it will be easy for viewers to determine the angles that the filmmakers chose to take in presenting this story.

Some of the major questions put forth in the documentary are: “Is computer hacker Matt DeHart guilty of treason against the U.S. government?” “What classified government information did he uncover?” “Is he a patriot or a traitor for wanting to reveal this information?” “And how credible is he when he’s been accused of being involved in child pornography?”

Here are the known facts that all of the involved parties agree are true: Matt DeHart (who was born in 1984) was part of the computer hacking movement called Anonymous, consisting of people who work covertly to expose corruption secrets of authorities. In 2008, Matt enlisted in the U.S. National Guard, where he was an intelligence analyst whose job included working in the National Guard’s drone unit.

In 2009, Matt was honorably discharged from the National Guard, due to his issues with depression. In January 2010, the DeHart home in Newburgh, Indiana—where Matt lived with his parents Paul DeHart and Leann DeHart—was raided on a warrant to search for child pornography that Matt was accused of soliciting from underage teen boys whom he met online. No child porn was found during this raid.

Shortly after this raid, Matt and Paul went to the Russian embassy in Washington, D.C., to seek asylum, but their request was denied. They made a similar request to the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, D.C., and were also turned down. In April 2010, Matt moved to Canada to become a college student. He first lived in Montreal and then moved to Prince Edward Island. He applied for a student visa at the U.S. border and was taken into custody by FBI agents.

Matt was kept in custody in Bangor, Maine, until he was transferred to Tennessee, where was jailed for 21 months. In May 2012, he was released but kept under house arrest and living with his parents in Newburgh. On April 13, 2013, Matt and his parents were in Deerhart, Indiana, when they secretly left the U.S. and fled to Canada.

Matt was deported back to the U.S. in March 2015. He pleaded guilty to child porn charges in November 2015, and received a 72-month prison sentence in February 2016. Matt was released from prison in November 2019.

Here’s where things start to get murky and where people’s stories conflict: According to Paul and Leann (who are interviewed in this documentary), Matt was drugged and tortured by the FBI when he was first arrested in 2010. The DeHarts say that Matt was targeted because he had uncovered some bombshell information about the U.S. government, and the government was afraid that Matt would make the information public through his Anonymous activities. Leann says that Matt also had ties to Wikileaks, as has been widely reported. According to captioned statements in the film, representatives for the FBI and the U.S. National Guard declined to participate in the documentary.

Matt’s parents also claim that shortly after their home was raided in 2010, Matt went to Mexico, where he gave a valuable flash drive with a lot of the classified information to an unidentified friend from the United Kingdom. Matt and his parents have refused to publicly say who this mystery friend is. Some people who know about Matt’s story believe this person exists, while others believe that the friend is a complete fabrication.

Leann claims that Matt asked her to look at the classified files that he uncovered, as a safety precaution, in case anything happened to him. She breaks down in tears when she says that what she saw convinced her that Matt was a target because of the dangerous information that Matt discovered about the U.S. government. In the documentary, the most scandalous thing that Leann talks about is that she found out from the classified files that the anthrax poison attacks of 2001 were “perpetuated by the CIA, in order to drum up support for [George W.] Bush for the Iraq War” and that the CIA’s involvement was “covered up by the FBI.”

Viewers won’t get to see Matt being interviewed for this documentary. It’s not revealed until the end of the film that he agreed to be interviewed on camera, but he never showed up for the interview. Therefore, his parents do all the talking for him in this documentary. And it’s clear that Paul and Leann will do anything for their only child.

Paul and Leann are both veterans of the U.S. military, which they say makes their current disllusionment with the U.S. government so devastating to them. Paul was an intelligence officer in the U.S. Air Force, while Leann was an electronic warfare voice intercept operator in the U.S. Army. In other words, these parents have first-hand knowledge of how U.S. government surveillance works in the U.S. military.

Leann says that when she and her husband asked Matt if the child porn charges were true, he vehemently denied it, and the parents say they believe him to this day because of what they say they know the U.S. government is capable of doing. Leann gives her thoughts in the documentary about what she says is the U.S. government’s persecution of Matt: “We decided as a family that we were going to fight this as a family. Little did we know it was a mistake.”

And she has this to say about the U.S. legal system, which she says has victimized her, Paul and Matt: “The truth does not matter.” During an interview in the DeHart home, Leann says that they decided to live as recluses in a secluded area. She confesses that she feels paranoid every time she sees a heliciopter, plane, car or strangers walking near their property because she thinks it could be the government spying on them.

Paul and Leann sound like upstanding American citizens, right? Not according to Michael Terry, a former attorney representing Matt. Terry went from being an ally of the DeHart family to being an outspoken critic. In the documentary, Terry says that he and the private investigator he hired could find no evidence to support the DeHarts’ conspiracy claims. Terry says that he now believes that Paul lied about the government conspiracy as a way to distract people from Matt’s child porn charges.

Terry gives a damning interview by essentially saying that Paul is mentally unstable and dangerous. Terry also comments that he became alarmed by Paul and Leann’s “control over Matt’s decisions.” One of the last straws for Terry, which led him to quit working with the DeHarts, was when he says that during a meeting, Paul began babbling to him about seeing the windows in the room vibrate at that moment. According to Terry, Paul tried to convince Terry that the U.S. government was causing the windows to vibrate because the government was spying on them.

As for the child pornography charges, the law enforcement officials interviewed in the documentary present compelling evidence (text messages, email and phone recordings) to show that Matt solicited nude and other sexually explicit photos and videos from two underage teenage boys whom he sought out online. (The photos and videos are not shown in the documentary.) Paul and Leann don’t deny that this evidence exists, but they say that Matt only pleaded guilty because he was pressured to take a plea deal by the prosecution.

The Middle District of Tennessee’s U.S. Assistant Attorney Carrie Daughtrey, one of the prosecutors in the child porn case against Matt, says that Matt used a false online persona of being a teenage girl to get the teen boys to masturbate on camera. The evidence uncovered also showed that Matt used another fake persona with the underage teens who were part of the child porn case: Matt pretended to be a mobster’s son and used that lie to intimidate his victims into not telling authorities about the illegal sexually explicit contact that Matt had with them.

Brett Kniss, a former police detective for the police department of Franklin, Tennessee, says that the real victims in the Matt DeHart case are those whom Matt manipulated into making child porn, as well as their families. (None of these witnesses is interviewed in the documentary.) Kniss was directly involved in the child porn investigation, and he doesn’t mince words when he says that what Matt did was despicable. Kniss also says the investigation uncovered a third underage teenager to be an alleged victim, but Kniss says this accuser was afraid to get involved in the case by making a formal complaint.

Kniss doesn’t really comment directly on the DeHarts’ government conspiracy theory. However, Kniss does want people watching the documentary to know that Matt initially denied having anything do with child porn but pleaded guilty after he found out about all the evidence against him. In other words, Kniss believes that if Matt could lie about being involved in child porn, then he could lie about anything else.

The DeHarts have their share of supporters who are outraged because they think Matt was set up by the U.S. government on the child porn charges, in order to silence Matt over what he knows about the U.S. government. The supporters consider Matt to be a “hacktivist,” a term used for computer hackers with activist intentions. Many people consider Anonymous and Wikileaks to be part of this “hactivist” movement.

One of Matt’s supporters is Larry Butkowsky, who is the DeHart family’s immigration lawyer. In the documentary, Butkowsky essentially repeats a lot of the claims that Paul and Leann make. Also interviewed in the documentary are DeHart family supporters such as Matt’s former psychotherapist Ralph Nichols; Lily Tekle, who was Matt’s immigration attorney in Canada; Matt’s former criminal defense attorneys Mark Scruggs and Tor Ekeland.

Gabriella Coleman, a McGill University instructor who is an expert on Anonymous, says in the documentary she’s inclined to be on Matt’s side because she believes he found out information that the U.S. government wants to be kept from the public. Coleman says that she first heard about Matt when he contacted her in 2009 to claim that he had secret CIA information. Coleman comments that uncovering classified government information “was the main reason why the government went after hackers and hactivists who were part of Anonymous.”

The documentary also interviews DeHart family friends such as Jonathan Barrier, Josh Weinstein and Michon Hemenway, who is Barrier’s mother. Because the DeHarts were a military family, they moved around a lot during Matt’s childhood and teen years. Barrier and Weinstein knew Matt when they attended the same high school (in Indiana for Barrier, in New Jersey for Weinstein), and they both describe Matt as an eccentric computer geek who had a rebellious streak and a sense of grandiosity about himself.

Weinstein says that when Matt ran for the school’s student-body president, he “hired” two friends to pretend to be his bodyguards during the campaign. Matt would act like a real government official who needed to be protected. And when Matt lost the election, he put dead fish in one of the school’s main vents, so that the stink of the fish would permeate on campus.

Hemenway compares Matt to the smarmy Eddie Haskell character from the classic “Leave It to Beaver” comedy series. Eddie Haskell was a troublemaker and a bully, but he put on a smooth-talking polite persona to authority figures, in order to fool them. Hemenway says of Matt: “He can talk himself into any situation, good or bad. He can talk himself out of any situation.”

While in high school, Matt formed a computer hacker club called KAOS (an acronym for Kaos Anti-Security Operations Syndicate), which was an early indication that he would become immersed in the hacker community. In the documentary, his parents say that although they never really encouraged Matt’s computer hacking activities, they didn’t discourage it either. “We raised him to think critically,” says Paul. “We raised him to be free.”

Based on these interviews in the documentary, what emerges is a portrait of the DeHarts as a family that gave only child Matt a lot of leeway in pursuing his interests, even if those interests could get him in trouble. Paul and Leann DeHart essentially think of Matt as a good, misunderstood son with some mental health issues made worse by torture from the U.S. government. And because Paul and Leann went on the run to Canada with Matt, resulting in all three of them becoming fugitives, it shows how far these parents are willing to go to protect him.

Other people interviewed in the documentary don’t really take sides but comment on what they’ve observed in this case. Investigative journalist Adrian Humphreys wrote about Matt’s case extensively for the National Post in Canada. Humphreys says that when he began the investigation, “I didn’t realize at that point how bizarre and twisting and turning and complicated the story would really be.” Carmen Mullholland, a former nurse at Penobscot County Jail in Bangor, Maine, says in the documentary that she witnessed Matt being incoherent and unsteady on his feet while was in custody, but she denies stories that Matt was given Thorazine when he was in that jail.

The documentary’s re-enactment footage is a bit of a distraction and used more than it should be, for the sake of creating melodrama. For example, when Paul describes seeing Matt in prison, curled up in a fetal position and twitching on the floor, there’s a re-enactment of that. The actors portraying the DeHarts are Joel Widman as Matt, Christopher Clark as Paul and Suzanne Pratley as Leann, who are mostly silent in the re-enactments. But when the actors are supposed to speak in certain scenes, their voices are dubbed over with audio recordings of the real Matt, Paul and Leann DeHart. That’s what happens in re-enactment scenes depicting the DeHarts’ 2014 immigration hearings in Canada.

There’s a lot of people who feel strongly about either side of this complicated case. The documentary doesn’t advocate for one side or another, but it does show how Matt’s child porn legal issues and his government conspiracy issues can be thought of as intertwined or separate, depending on who’s being interviewed. Is he telling the truth about one or the other issue, both issues, or neither issue? “Enemies of the State” is the type of documentary that lets viewers make up their own minds.

IFC Films released “Enemies of the State” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on July 30, 2021.

Review: ‘Lansky’ (2021) starring Harvey Keitel, Sam Worthington, AnnaSophia Robb, Minka Kelly and John Magaro

July 7, 2021

by Carla Hay

Sam Worthington and Harvey Keitel in “Lansky” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Lansky”

Directed by Eytan Rockaway

Culture Representation: Taking place in Miami, New York state, Israel and Switzerland, the dramatic film “Lansky” has a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one African American) representing the middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: Notorious gangster Meyer Lansky tells his life story to a journalist who wants to write Lansky’s official biography, while an ambitious FBI agent wants the journalist to breach confidentiality ethics to give information about Lansky to the FBI.

Culture Audience: “Lansky” will appeal primarily to people who like formulaic movies about famous American mobsters.

A scene from “Lansky” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese has mastered the art of making movies about American mobsters. “Lansky,” about real-life 20th century crime boss Meyer Lansky, is one of numerous cheap and trite imitations of a Scorsese gangster film. “Lansky” is not a terrible movie, but it’s so formulaic that it’s often quite dull.

“Lansky” (written and directed by Eytan Rockaway) makes a half-hearted attempt to appear neutral about how complicated Lansky was. But in the end, the movie glorifies his murderous mayhem and almost justifies it by putting a lot of emphasis on how his corrupt business dealings generated a lot of money for local economies. The entire tone of the film is, “Never mind how many people were slaughtered because of Lansky, because he was a godfather of the gambling industry that’s given people a lot of jobs and boosted tourism.”

The 1999 HBO film “Lansky,” directed by John McNaughton and starring Richard Dreyfuss as Meyer Lansky, was a more conventional biopic that focused on Lansky in his prime. Rockaway’s “Lansky” movie attempts to take more creative risks by having it be about Lansky (played by Harvey Keitel) toward the end of his life and telling his story for a possible biography that he wants published after his death. Lansky died of lung cancer in 1983, at the age of 80.

In the production notes for “Lansky,” Rockaway says that his father “had the opportunity to interview [Lansky] just before he died. Meyer was a husband, father, friend, killer, genius, criminal, patriot and the founder of the largest crime organization in American history … He is both the protagonist and antagonist of this story. This film is not about loving or hating this man, it is about understanding him.”

Rockaway also admits in the “Lansky” production notes: “Growing up with a father who was an historian with expertise in the history of crime and the underworld, I was always intrigued by the adventurous and dangerous lives of gangsters. That dark and elusive underworld, with its own rules and codes of conduct operating in the shadows of civilized society, was fascinating. As a young boy, it sounded more like a fantasy world rather than historical reality.”

The movie tends to over-glamorize Lansky’s life and shuts out any depiction of the long-term damage of his crimes, except for how it made his wife angry at him and ruined their marriage. There’s almost no thought given to his victims. Although there are scenes that depict the brutal violence of Lansky’s crimes, he’s rarely shown actually doing the dirty work because the movie mainly shows other people carrying out murders and assaults for him.

In order to work his way up to being a mob boss with that type of power, this “Lansky” movie glosses over all the brutal crimes he had to commit along the way when he was a henchman, not the boss. And the movie barely mentions Lansky’s legal problems. As an adult, he only spent a couple of months in jail, but he was still very entangled in the court system because of frequent accusations (assault and tax evasion, to name a few) against him.

The other protagonist of “Lansky” is a fictional character named David Stone (played by Sam Worthington), a down-on-his luck journalist who travels to Miami in 1981, because he has a chance to interview Lansky for a biographical book on Lansky. The movie switches back and forth between what happens in 1981 and what happens in Lansky’s storytelling version of his life prior to 1981. By 1981, Lansky already knew that he was dying of lung cancer.

Lansky also knows everything about Stone’s background, including his education (Stone is a Princeton graduate), his work history (including being a crime reporter of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel in Indiana) and his personal life. Stone is having financial problems and is currently separated from his wife Christina, nicknamed Chrissie. They have two underage children together: a daughter named Eva and a son named Jack. Stone’s family members are not seen in the movie, but Stone is shown having phone conversations with Christina and Eva.

When Stone and Lansky meet for the first time at a diner in Miami, Lansky is firm in telling Stone that everything that Lansky says in the interviews will be “off the record,” unless Lansky approves it. Lansky stipulates that he doesn’t want this biography to be published until after Lansky’s death. “Betray me and there will be consequences,” warns Lansky. “I hope our collaboration will be a successful one.”

Lansky’s life story in this movie begins in Lansky’s hometown of New York City in 1912, when Lansky was 10 years old and developed a fascination with numbers and dice games played on the street. The movie doesn’t mention that Lansky was born in the Russian Empire to a Polish Jewish family who immigrated to the United States, when he was 10 years old. As an example of how this movie tends to glorify Lansky, it completely skips over any heinous stories about how Lansky paid his dues as a henchman while working his way up the ranks in New York’s Italian mafia.

Instead, the movie goes straight to when a young Lansky (played by John Magaro) was already a trusted right-hand person for mob boss Charles “Lucky” Luciano (played by Shane McRae), who was Lansky’s mentor. In this flashback scene, the movie “Lansky” mistakenly puts the year as 1918, when Lansky was just 16 years old. In reality, Lansky didn’t reach this level of mafia authority until he was in his 20s. Luciano’s criminal activities were funded by operating gambling businesses, which is also how Lansky ended up making his fortune.

The friendship between Lansky and Benny “Bugsy” Siegel (played by David Cade) is also depicted in the movie. As Lansky explains to Stone, Lansky and Siegel were like brothers. Lansky handled the numbers, while Siegel was the enforcer in their mafioso activities. Predictably violent gangster scenes of torture and murder are in the movie, which includes Lansky’s influential involvement in the crime organizations Murder Inc. and National Crime Syndicate.

As an up-and-coming gangster, Lansky met a woman named Anne (played by AnnaSophia Robb), who would become his wife and the mother of his children. (In real life, her name was Anna Citron. She and Lansky eventually got divorced, but their divorce is not in this movie.) Their first meeting is depicted as an impromptu “double date” situation, when Lansky and Siegel were at a restaurant. Anne and her friend Elise happen to be at the same restaurant, are introduced to Lansky by Siegel, and join the two men for dinner.

When Anne and Elise ask Lansky and Siegel what they do for a living, Siegel and Lansky say they’re in the “truck rental business.” But as their conversation goes on, it becomes pretty obvious that Lansky and Siegel are involved in criminal activities. It makes Elise nervous, and she leaves, but Anne decides to stay because she tells Elise that these two strangers “seem nice.” It’s implied that Anne, who less than smart, is attracted to the “bad boy” type.

The next time that Anne and Lansky are seen together, they’re married parents to a disabled toddler son named Buddy, their eldest child, who was born with an impaired ability to walk. When a doctor tells Anne and Lansky that Buddy will have to wear a leg brace for the rest of his life, Lansky takes the news very hard. He sees it as a sign of weakness that Buddy was born disabled, but Lansky eventually accepts it and is depicted as someone who is devoted as he can be to his children. (The movie shows that Anne and Lansky eventually had two sons and a daughter.)

But things get worse for Anne, because she becomes miserable in the marriage, Most of the later scenes between Anne and Lansky show them getting into shouting matches and physical fights. She hurls insults at him for being a murderer, while he doesn’t want to hear this truth, and he gets angry. Lansky, who admits to Stone that he was often unfaithful to Anne because he it made him “feel good,” seems to think that Anne should just shut up and be happy with all the wealth that he’s been able to provide for their family.

The movie shows how Lansky’s wealth increased considerably when he got the opportunity to oversee the gambling industry in Cuba. And, according to Lansky, he was an unsung hero in fighting Nazis before and during World War II. There’s a very hokey scene in the movie of some of Lansky’s thugs breaking up a pro-Nazi, German-American Bund meeting in Yorkville, New York, in 1937, and getting into a bloody brawl that ends with the Nazis being defeated. It’s mentioned in the movie that Lansky was behind several disruptions of these types of Nazi rallies in New York in the 1930s and 1940s.

Not only is Lansky depicted as a great American patriot in the movie, he’s also portrayed as a Jew who takes pride in uplifting his family’s Israeli roots by getting involved in funding weapons for the Israeli military. It’s a movie that shows Lansky practically being an American diplomat to Israel. He has conversations with Israeli government leaders, such as Golda Meier, who is depicted as politician who allied herself with Lansky and later turned against him when his gangster reputation became too scandalous.

It can be argued that because Lansky is telling his life story in the movie, he’s naturally going to exaggerate or make himself look like a hero. But the movie lazily goes along with this concept. A more interesting approach to the movie would have been to put the fictional character of Stone to better use as a journalist—someone who would and should do his own independent investigation rather than just taking Lansky’s word for everything.

Instead, the “Lansky” movie has a useless subplot about Stone getting sexually involved with a woman named Maureen Duffy (played by Minka Kelly), who’s staying at the same motel in Miami. There’s a scene with Stone getting into a fist fight with Maureen’s jealous ex-boyfriend Ray Hutchinson (played by James Devoti), a drug dealer who’s convinced that Maureen was the snitch who set up him up to be arrested. It’s a giant clue/foreshadowing of what comes later in the movie about Maureen, who is never seen again soon after her secret is revealed.

In fact, “Lansky” is such a cliché American gangster movie that the only two female characters with significant speaking roles in the movie (Anne and Maureen) are only there to fulfill the role of wife or lover, which often translates to “nagging shrew” or “sexy temptress.” It’s all so hackneyed, boring and unimaginative. Robb and Kelly are perfectly adequate in their acting, but they don’t have much to do beyond the stereotypical roles that were written for them in this movie.

There’s another subplot, taking place in 1981, of an ambitious FBI agent named Frank Rivers (played by David James Elliott) who’s determined to find out if the rumor is true that Lansky has $300 million hidden away somewhere. And so, there’s a scene of Agent Rivers trying to convince his reluctant boss R.J. Campell (played by James Moses Black) to give him more budget money to investigate. And it should come as no surprise that the FBI finds out what Stone is doing in Miami. How it all plays out is very predictable.

The acting in “Lansky” isn’t particularly outstanding—Keitel has played a gangster so many times in movies, he can do it in his sleep—but Magaro as the young Lansky stands out as the one who’s best able to convey some character depth. Unfortunately, much of the dialogue falls into cornball territory, which lessens the impact of the violent scenes. And the movie’s pacing gets sluggish in the last third of the film.

The dialogue spewed by the elderly Lansky often makes him look less like a gangster reflecting on his sordid life and more like someone who’s trying to be a life coach/therapist for Stone. In one scene, Lansky tells Stone that they’ve both had lifelong insecurities about feeling like outsiders because their fathers rejected them. Lansky’s father never approved of his son’s criminal lifestyle, while Stone’s father abandoned his family when Stone was a child.

And then there are the preachy platitudes that Lansky imparts to Stone, as if Lansky is giving some kind of sermon. In one scene, Lansky lectures: “When you lose all your money, you lose nothing. When you lose your health, you lose something. When you lose your character, you lose everything.” Says the man responsible for an untold number of murders and other destruction of people’s lives.

“Lansky” was made for a certain audience that loves to see gangsters glorified on screen. However, the filmmakers missed an opportunity to go beyond the usual mobster biopic tropes, because there’s no one in the movie who challenges or investigates Lansky’s version of events. As much as writer/director Rockaway might say that this movie is not about “loving or hating” Lansky, the movie essentially puts Lansky up on a pedestal in a loving way, in an effort to give Lansky “legendary” status.

Vertical Entertainment released “Lansky” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on June 25, 2021.

Review: ‘The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,’ starring Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson

June 1, 2021

by Carla Hay

Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson in “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” (Photo by Ben Rothstein/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It”

Directed by Michael Chaves

Culture Representation: Taking place in Connecticut and Massachusetts in 1981, the horror sequel “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Asians and Hispanics) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A husband and a wife, who are well-known demonologists/paranormal investigators, get involved in a murder case to try to prove that the defendant was possessed by an evil spirit when he committed the murder. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of people who are fans of “The Conjuring” franchise, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” will appeal to people who are interested in horror movies that blend the supernatural with real-life legal drama.

Vera Farmiga, Ruairi O’Connor, Vince Pisani, Sarah Catherine Hook and Patrick Wilson in “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

How much people might enjoy “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” will depend on how much they can tolerate “The Conjuring” universe taking a “Law & Order”-like turn in this particular sequel. That’s because demonologist/paranormal investigator spouses Ed Warren (played by Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Wilson (played by Vera Farmiga) go beyond the typical haunted house/exorcism storylines of previous “The Conjuring” movies and get involved in a murder case to the point where the Warrens are investigating crime scenes like detectives and giving legal advice like attorneys.

It has the potential to make “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” a convoluted mess. But somehow, it all works out to be a satisfying horror thriller that makes up for its predictability with good performances, some terrifying visual effects and overall suspenseful pacing. The movie also has some unexpected touches of humor and romance that take some of the edge off this grim and gruesome story.

Directed by Michael Chaves and written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” (also known as “The Conjuring 3”) is inspired by a true story from the case files of the real-life Ed and Lorraine Warren. The case was about Arne Cheyenne Johnson, who stabbed his 40-year-old landlord to death in Brookfield, Connecticut, in 1981, when Johnson was 19 years old. Johnson admitted to the stabbing but pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder.

His defense? The devil made him do it. Johnson claimed that during the stabbing, he had been possessed by the devil, which entered his body a few months before, during an exorcism of an 11-year-old boy named David Glatzel, who happened to be the younger brother of Arne’s girlfriend Debbie Glatzel. It was the first known U.S. murder case where demonic possession was used as a defense argument.

In real life, the Warrens got involved in the case because they were at this exorcism that was the catalyst for this tragic turn of events. And the Warrens ended up testifying on behalf of Johnson. (The trial doesn’t happen until toward the end of the movie.)

“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” begins with an effectively horrifying re-enactment of the exorcism of David Glatzel (played by Julian Hilliard), which takes place in the movie at the Glatzel home on July 18, 1981. In the movie, David is 8 years old, not 11. Ed and Lorraine Warren are at the exorcism, along with Arne (played by Ruairi O’Connor) and Arne’s live-in girlfriend Debbie (played by Sarah Catherine Hook), who have a very loyal and loving relationship.

Arne and Debbie are both in their late teens and live in another house in Brookfield. Also at the exorcism are David and Debbie’s father Carl Glatzel (played by Paul Wilson); David and Debbie’s mother Judy Glatzel (played by Charlene Amoia); and the Warrens’ videographer/assistant Drew Thomas (played by Shannon Kook), who is filming this exorcism.

When the movie begins, it’s implied that the exorcism has been going on for hours, with David showing ebbs and flows in his demonic possession. At one point, David has reached such a state of exhaustion that Arne takes David up to David’s bedroom to tuck the boy into bed. Arne is depicted as a mild-mannered and polite person.

Arne tells David, “You’re one brave kid. I was a little runt growing up, so I know what it’s like to be picked on, but that was nothing compared to what you’re going through.” David says, “I don’t feel very brave.” Arne replies, “Being brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared. It means you’re scared, but you’re hanging in there. I won’t let anything happen to you. I promise.”

David then says, “Arne when are you going to ask my sister to marry you?” Arne replies with a slightly embarrassed tone, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Despite this friendly banter, there’s a lingering sense of danger in the air. Arne looks outside David’s bedroom window and sees that a priest has arrived by taxi.

The priest is Father Gordon (played by Steve Coulter), who will be the official exorcist for David. Whatever evil spirits are around seem to know that a clergy person is there, because all hell breaks loose soon after the arrival of Father Gordon. David starts attacking like a demon child, beginning with stabbing his father in the leg. He goes through various contortions. And the inside of the house begins to look like a full-force tornado with swirling gusts of evil.

During this chaos, possessed David attacks Ed, who is knocked down on the ground. Arne sees that the demon won’t leave David’s body, so Arne grabs the possessed child and shouts at the demon: “Leave him alone and take me!” And not long after that, David calms down, but Arne won’t be the same. And neither will Ed, because he’s had a heart attack during this exorcism.

It’s a powerful way to begin the movie, which grabs viewers’ attention from this opening sequence and keeps this heightened level of tension throughout the film. David seems to be “cured,” but Arne starts having nightmarish visions. There’s a sinister-looking woman (played by Eugenie Bondurant) who keeps appearing in the visions, with a clear intent to harm Arne. For example, the first time that she attacks Arne, she starts to strangle him, but he’s able to stop it when he comes out of his trance.

At first, Arne doesn’t tell anyone about his visions because he doesn’t want people to think that he’s crazy. But then, things happen to the point where he can no longer keep it a secret that strange things have been happening to him. It’s eventually revealed in the movie who this evil-looking woman is and her ultimate malicious intent.

Ed’s heart attack lands him in a hospital emergency room. He’s eventually released, but he has to use a wheelchair for a good deal of the story. Over time (this movie takes place over a six-month period, from May to November 1981), Ed doesn’t need the wheelchair anymore, but he has to use a cane. “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” includes a flashback to May 1981, when the Glatzels moved into the home that appears to be where the family first encountered the demon, which attacked David in a memorable scene involving a water bed.

Meanwhile, Arne and Debbie are trying to get their lives back to normal. Arne works for a tree service company, and Debbie works for Brookfield Boarding Kennels, a pet service company that’s located inside a two-story house. Debbie and Arne live in the house rent-free as part of her job. It’s a house that’s filled with barking dogs kept in cages when they’re inside.

In a conversation that takes place after the exorcism, Arne suggests to Debbie that they move away from Brookfield. He also drops hints that they should eventually get married. Debbie seems reluctant to move away from Brookfield because she and Arne can’t really afford to move yet and she doesn’t want to live too far away from her family. However, she tells Arne that she’ll think about it.

The owner of Brookfield Boarding Kennels is a creepy drunk named Bruno Salz (played by Ronnie Gene Blevins), who has an underpaid Debbie doing most of the work. She’s very responsible and caring in her job, where she’s essentially the manager and bookkeeper for the business. And that’s another reason why Debbie doesn’t really want to move: She’s afraid that the dogs won’t be taken care of very well if flaky Bruno is left in charge of the kennel.

Bruno has been pestering Arne to repair Bruno’s broken stereo in the house’s living room. And one day, when the stereo is repaired, Bruno decides to crank up the music and have an impromptu party with Debbie, Arne and plenty of alcohol. Bruno plays Blondie’s “Call Me” full blast on the stereo and starts dancing with an uncomfortable-looking Debbie. (“Call Me” will be featured in another part of the movie too.)

Suddenly, Arne seems to be losing touch with reality. And this is where he’s supposed to be possessed by the demon. There’s an almost psychedelic nightmare that’s depicted on screen. And by the end, it’s revealed that Bruno was stabbed to death by Arne. (The stabbing is never shown on screen.) The murder in the movie takes place in September 1981, but in real life, the murder happened on February 16, 1981. It was the first murder in Brookfield’s history.

In a daze, Arne walks down a deserted road, with blood on his hands and clothes. A police officer (played by Chris Greene) in a patrol car stops to ask Arne what’s going on. And that’s when Arne says, “I think I hurt someone.” Arne is arrested for Bruno’s murder. And guess who’s coming back to Brookfield to investigate?

Fans of mystery solving will appreciate the added storyline of Ed and Lorraine Warren doing a lot of detective-like investigating, as the Warrens dig deep to find out the origins of this evil spirit that seems to have taken possession of Arne. In the movie, the demon isn’t inside of Arne all of the time. Arne is placed in the psychiatric ward in the local jail, and he’s a fairly passive prisoner most of the time. But there are moments when the demon comes back to haunt and possibly harm Arne.

In the movie, the Warrens are depicted as being the ones to convince Arne’s defense attorney Meryl (played by Ashley LeConte Campbell) to use demonic possession as a defense argument for Arne. It’s an unprecedented legal strategy that Meryl is convinced won’t work, until Ed and Lorraine show the attorney what they found in their demonologist research over the years. Debbie and the rest of the Glatzel family fully believe that Arne was possessed when he killed Bruno, so the Glatzels are supportive of Arne before and during the trial.

The Warrens take it upon themselves to help gather evidence for this case, but they also want to see if they can get rid of this demonic spirit that they believe exists. The Warrens’ investigation leads them to Danvers, Massachusetts, where they find out how the mysterious case of two teenage girls who were best friends is somehow connected to Arne’s case.

The teenagers are named Katie Lincoln (played by Andrea Andrade) and Jessica Louise Strong (played by Ingrid Bisu), who went missing in May 1981. Katie was found murdered, while Jessica is still missing. The Warrens also track down a former priest whose last name is Kastner (played by John Noble), who might have some answers about this particular demon.

Along the way, Ed and Lorraine also get help from a jail priest named Father Newman (played by Vince Pisani) and a police detective in Danvers named Sergeant Clay (played by Keith Arthur Bolden), who is skeptical at first about helping the Warrens. But then, things happen that change Sergeant Clay’s mind. The movie has a few far-fetched things in the story, such as Sergeant Clay being willing to share his case files with Ed and Lorraine, when in reality that’s a serious breach of police protocol.

And some of the horror scenes are over-the-top with visual effects happening in a very “only in a movie” way, instead of depicting what the real exorcisms probably looked like. The amount of body contortions alone would break bones and put someone in a hospital. But elaborate scare spectacles are what people who watch horror movies like this expect to see.

“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” delivers in a way that’s effectively chilling but not as disturbing as 1973’s “The Exorcist,” the gold standard for exorcism movies. However, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” is a vast improvement over director Chaves’ feature-film directorial debut: the bland 2019 horror flick “The Curse of La Llorona.” Because of Arne’s murder trial, there’s a lot more at stake than the usual attempts to rid a person or a house of an evil spirit.

“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” is also helped by a suitably convincing production design (by Jennifer Spence), which involves a lot of dusty, dark and unsettling places. And it’s easy to see why the movie changed the seasonal time period to the late summer/early autumn, instead of winter, because cinematographer Michael Burgess effectively uses a lot of autumn-like brown and gold for the exterior shots to contrast with the black and gray of the biggest horror scenes in the film. “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” would have looked like a very different movie if it took place in the winter.

Viewers will also see little bit more backstory to Ed and Lorraine’s relationship. In brief romantic flashback scenes, it’s shown how the couple met: Thirty years prior, when Ed and Lorraine were both 17 years old, Lorraine (played by Megan Ashley Brown) went with some friends to a movie theater, where Ed (played by Mitchell Hoog) was working as an usher. It was attraction at first sight, and they began dating shortly afterward.

The movie doesn’t have these scenes as filler. Lorraine is reminiscing about this courtship because of Ed’s near-death scare with his heart attack. It’s caused her to reflect on their longtime relationship. And it’s made the couple appreciate their marriage and partnership even more.

But the movie also has a few touches of comic relief, by showing some of the personal dynamics between this longtime married couple. There are some subtle references to the gender roles that were and still are expected of couples who work together. In “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,” Lorraine has to take charge of much of the literal physical legwork in the investigation because of Ed’s recovery from his heart attack.

In a scene where Ed and Lorraine want to investigate a cellar in the Glatzel house, Ed (who is using a cane) realistically won’t be able to crawl around in the cellar. However, Ed tells Lorraine, who tends to dress like a prim and proper schoolteacher: “Honey, let me handle it. You’re going to ruin your dress if you go in there … Be careful.” With an “I can handle it” expression on her face, Lorraine calmly says, “Just hold my purse,” as she hands her purse to Ed. It’s a very realistic and hilarious moment that says it all about how women are often underestimated by men.

The film also shows Ed’s frustration at not being able to physically move around in the way that he’s been used to for all of his life. His anxiety isn’t portrayed in a heavy-handed way, but it’s a nod to the lifestyle adjustments that people who’ve been able-bodied have to go through when they find themselves disabled, even if it’s a temporary disabled condition. Ed does some griping about it, but not in a way that’s too self-pitying.

In a scene where Ed and Lorraine leave a courthouse after a preliminary hearing for Arne, observant viewers will notice that Ed needs to be carried in his wheelchair down the courtroom steps. It’s because the story takes place nine years before the Americans with Disabilities Act made it federal law in 1990 for buildings to provide reasonable access for disabled people. Nowadays, a courtroom building with outdoor steps, such as the building depicted in the movie, is also supposed to have ramps for people who use wheelchairs or walkers.

Since the first “The Conjuring” movie was released in 2013, Farmiga and Wilson have settled into these roles with a charming familiarity. Lorraine is the more level-headed and articulate one in this couple, while Ed (and his East Coast dialect slang) is the more approachable and down-to-earth spouse. Farmiga and Wilson are believable as a couple with a very deep love and respect for each other.

The rest of the cast members are perfectly fine in their roles, but the characters that are new to “The Conjuring” franchise for this movie were clearly written as only for this movie. The character of Arne is a little on the generic side, but O’Connor does an admirable job of conveying Arne’s inner turmoil. Bondurant’s role as the mystery woman who’s been plaguing Arne definitely brings a menacing aura to the movie, but she hardly says anything, so her presence is literally more muted than it needs to be.

Make no mistake: Ed and Lorraine Warren are the main characters for viewers to be the most invested in emotionally. In “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,” Lorraine’s psychic abilities are a major part of the story. People might have mixed feelings about how these psychic visions are depicted in the movie and how much of this real-life case was embellished into a Hollywood version.

But just like the rest of the story, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” isn’t about trying to explain a lot of things that can’t be explained by scientific facts. Whether or not viewers believe that demonic spirits exist, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” succeeds in providing plenty of memorable horror that makes it a worthy part of “The Conjuring” universe.

Warner Bros. Pictures will release “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on June 4, 2021. The movie was released in the United Kingdom on May 26, 2021.

Review: ‘Above Suspicion’ (2021), starring Emilia Clarke, Jack Huston and Johnny Knoxville

May 30, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jack Huston and Emilia Clarke in “Above Suspicion” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Above Suspicion” (2021)

Directed by Phillip Noyce

Culture Representation: Taking place in Kentucky from 1988 to 1989, the crime drama “Above Suspicion” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A drug-addicted woman becomes a confidential informant to the FBI, and complications ensue when she gets emotionally involved with the FBI agent who is her contact.

Culture Audience: “Above Suspicion” will appeal mostly to people who don’t mind watching predictable and pulpy crime movies that put more emphasis on being tacky than being suspenseful.

Johnny Knoxville and Emilia Clarke in “Above Suspicion” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

The cheap-looking and tawdry drama “Above Suspicion” is based on a true crime story, but the movie foolishly gives away the ending at the very beginning of the film. In other words, if viewers don’t know what happened in this case in real life, they’ll know exactly what the outcome is in the movie’s opening scene, which has a morbid “voice from the dead” narration from the movie’s main character. “Above Suspicion” just goes downhill from there.

Directed by Phillip Noyce, “Above Suspicion” is one of those “flashback” movies where the narrator is telling what happened in the past. And in this movie (which takes place in 1988 and 1989), the narrator tells viewers that she’s already dead. Her name is Susan Smith (played by Emilia Clarke), a divorced mother of two children. She was in her late 20s when she died.

In these flashbacks of her life, Susan is a cocaine-snorting, pill-popping, marijuana-smoking ne’er do well who makes money by committing fraud. She’s been collecting government welfare checks from the state of West Virginia, which she’s not entitled to have because she actually lives in Kentucky, where she gets welfare checks too. And occasionally, Susan sells drugs to make money.

In the movie’s opening scene, Susan says in a voiceover: “You know what’s the worst thing about being dead? You get too much time to think. Thinking is painful. Knowing things is painful.”

To serve as a warning to viewers, a better way to open this movie would have been: “You know what’s the worst thing about a brain-dead movie? It wastes too much time. Watching it is painful. Knowing this movie could be so much better is painful.”

And sitting through all the cringeworthy lines that stink up this movie is painful. Chris Gerolmo wrote the “Above Suspicion” screenplay, which is based on journalist Joe Sharkey’s 1993 non-fiction book of the same name. People who’ve read that book will probably find this movie difficult to watch because it takes what was fascinating about this true crime book and turns it into a trashy melodrama.

Clarke, who is British in real life, attempts to give a believable and edgy performance as a Kentucky mother who’s lost her way in life and ends up falling for and clinging to a seemingly straight-laced married FBI agent. But there are moments when Clarke’s true British mannerisms come through, such as when she slips up and says the word “whilst” instead of “while” during one of the many scenes where her Susan character is yelling at someone. “Whilst” is not the kind of word that would be in the vocabulary of a Kentucky hillbilly like Susan.

Because “Above Suspicion” reveals in the opening scene that Susan is dead, the rest of this 104-minute movie is really just a countdown to Susan’s death. Given the lifestyle that she leads and what’s at stake when Susan gets involved with a married FBI agent with a squeaky-clean reputation, it’s not hard to figure out how she’ll die. And it won’t be from a drug overdose. If viewers don’t know what happened to the real Susan Smith in this case before they see “Above Suspicion,” it’ll become pretty obvious what her fate will be soon after this movie begins.

Susan lives in a dirty and disheveled house in Pikeville, Kentucky, with her sleazy ex-husband Cash (played by Johnny Knoxville), who’s a small-time drug dealer. They’re still living together because they can’t afford to get their own separate places. (In real life, the name of Susan’s ex-husband was Kenneth, but he really was a drug dealer.) Susan and Cash’s two children—an unnamed daughter who’s 7 or 8 years old (played by Lex Kelli) and a son named Isom who’s 5 or 6 years old (played by Landon Durrance)—don’t say much, probably because they’re shell-shocked by living in such a dysfunctional home.

Someone who does talk a lot is Susan. She and Cash have arguments and physical fights with each other, and she gets irritable or impatient with almost anyone who crosses her path, except for her children. Two other people who live in Susan and Cash’s dumpy house are an unemployed couple in their 20s: Joe B. (played by Karl Glusman) and his girlfriend Georgia Beale (played by Brittany O’Grady), who don’t seem to do much but sleep all day. Joe met Cash when they were in prison together. Cash is the one who invited Joe to stay at the house after Joe got out of prison. Needless to say, Susan isn’t very happy about it.

In one of the movie’s early scenes, Joe makes inappropriate sexual comments to Susan, who understandably gets upset. Joe also calls her “Susie,” which she hates. But then, Susan also takes her anger out on Georgia about it. Susan bursts into the room where Georgia is sleeping and berates her about Joe being a creep. As Susan storms back out of the room, she screams at Georgia, “Pay me my rent money, bitch!”

Joe actually has been making money, but in an illegal way. He’s secretly a bank robber who has been targeting banks in cities near Pikeville, with Georgia’s help as his occasional getaway driver. Susan knows this secret because Joe’s red Chevy pickup truck fits the news media’s description of the getaway car. And she’s found Joe’s stash of cash with the guns that were used in the robberies.

“Above Suspicion” has some druggie party scenes that are exactly what people might expect. And it’s only a matter of time before fights break out at these parties. Susan’s volatile younger brother Bones (played by Luke Spencer Roberts) predictably gets in one of these fights, which leads to a particularly violent scene that was fabricated for this movie, just to add more melodrama.

Susan says in a voiceover: “Welcome to Pikeville, the town that never lets go.” She also says that in Pikeville, which is plagued by drug addiction, there are two main ways that people make money: “the funeral business or selling drugs.” And earlier in the film, this is how Susan describes herself: “I was a regular girl once. But things go wrong, as things will.”

Susan’s life takes a fateful turn when she meets Mark Putnam (played by Jack Huston), an ambitious and fairly new FBI agent, who has transferred to Pikeville to investigate the bank robberies. When Susan first sees Mark, who’s two years older than she is, she describes him like a hunk straight out of a romance novel. It’s lust at first sight for Susan.

And when Susan finds out that Mark is the FBI agent leading the investigation into the robberies, she sees it as an opportunity to get to know him better. It isn’t long before she drops hints to Mark that she knows who the bank robber is, but she’s afraid to be exposed as a snitch. Mark offers to pay Susan for bits and pieces of information, and she becomes his main confidential informant.

Susan dangles enough tips for Mark to investigate to keep him coming back for more. There’s an ulterior motive, of course. Susan wants to seduce Mark. And because Mark is so different from the men she’s used to being involved with, Susan starts to fall in love with him. However, it’s debatable whether it’s true love or if it’s Susan just wanting a ticket out of her dead-end life. At one point, when Mark asks Susan what she wants most in her life, she answers, “Rehab and money.”

Susan knows that Mark is happily married and has a baby daughter with his wife Kathy Putnam (played by Sophie Lowe), but that doesn’t seem to deter Susan from having a fantasy that Mark will eventually leave Kathy to be with Susan. When Susan and Mark meet in out-of-the-way and deserted places in other Kentucky cities such as Portersville and Martin, it’s just like the clandestine way that secret lovers meet. Susan starts to tell Mark that they both make a great team, but she wants to make their “partnership” about more than FBI work.

“Above Suspicion” portrays Susan as toning down some of her vulgar and mean-spirited ways to try to seduce Mark. She gives him a lot of flattery and attention. And anyone watching this movie will not be surprised when Mark starts to fall for Susan too because he’s become slightly bored with his marriage. But Mark doesn’t feel so strongly about Susan that he wants to leave his wife. Mark has a big ego, and he enjoys being with someone who fuels that ego. Huston’s portrayal of Mark is as someone whose top priority in life is being the best at his job and getting recognition and praise for it.

Even if Mark were an available bachelor, Mark and Susan’s relationship has too many other issues, including a power imbalance and a difference in their social classes. And most troubling of all for Mark’s career is that getting sexually involved with Susan is a breach of ethics and an automatic compromise of the evidence that Mark is getting from her for this investigation. And once the investigation is over, where does Susan fit into Mark’s life?

Clarke and Huston (who is also British in real life) aren’t terrible in their roles, but they are hindered by a subpar screenplay. Huston’s Mark character is often written as two-dimensional, while Clarke’s Susan character displays over-the-top trashiness that becomes increasingly annoying, especially when Susan begins stalking Mark and his wife Kathy. It’s supposed to make Susan look emotionally needy, lovesick and vulnerable, but her obsession with Mark only makes her look mentally unhinged. As for Knoxville, his abusive Cash character is just another version of the scumbags that Knoxville usually portrays in movies.

There are some supporting characters in the movie that don’t add much to the story. Susan has a concerned older sister named Jolene (played by Thora Birch), who lives in West Virginia and occasionally calls Susan. Mark has a colleague named Todd Eason (played by Chris Mulkey), who’s retiring from the FBI in six months. There are an informant named Denver Rhodes (played by Omar Benson Miller) and an international drug dealer named Rufus (played by Brian Lee Franklin), who both appear in the last third of the movie.

Noyce’s direction of “Above Suspicion” aims for the movie to be gritty noir, but it’s really just low-budget junk. It’s very easy to predict how this story is going to end. And until that ending, which Susan already blabbed about in the voiceover narration, it’s just one scene after another of contrasting Susan’s riff-raff life with Mark’s law-enforcement life. These two worlds end up crashing in the most horrific of ways. And it’s too bad that the overall result is that “Above Suspicion” is a cinematic train wreck.

Lionsgate released “Above Suspicion” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on May 14, 2021. The movie was released on Blu-ray and DVD on May 18, 2021.

Review: ‘City of Lies,’ starring Johnny Depp and Forest Whitaker

April 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Johnny Depp in “City of Lies” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

“City of Lies”

Directed by Brad Furman

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the dramatic film “City of Lies” features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, African American and a few Latinos) representing middle-class citizens, law enforcement and the criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A bitter former Los Angeles police detective joins forces with a TV journalist to try to solve the 1997 murder of rapper The Notorious B.I.G., also known as Biggie Smalls.

Culture Audience: “City of Lies” will appeal primarily to people interested in the Notorious B.I.G. murder case or movies about true crime, but the movie drags with a sluggish pace and mediocre performances.

Forest Whitaker and Johnny Depp in “City of Lies” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

The life and murder of The Notorious B.I.G., also known as Biggie Smalls, has turned into a cottage industry for filmmakers, since there have been several documentaries and narrative feature films about the rapper, who was murdered in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles on March 9, 1997. The same could be said of the numerous movies about rapper Tupac Shakur, who died in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas on September 13, 1996. Both murders are speculated to be linked to each other, and these two murder cases remain unsolved. The dramatic film “City of Lies” (directed by Brad Furman) focuses on the Biggie Smalls murder case in such a lukewarm and unremarkable way that people will be better off watching any of the several documentaries about the same subject.

The troubled behind-the-scenes story of “City of Lies” is actually more interesting than the movie itself. “City of Lies” was originally supposed to be released in 2018, but the movie’s release was abruptly cancelled by then-distributor Global Road Entertainment, formerly known as Open Road Films. The company was sued by Bank Leumi, which loaned $32 million to make the movie and wanted the money back since the movie’s release was cancelled. In a separate lawsuit, “City of Lies” star Johnny Depp was sued by the movie’s former location manager Gregg “Rocky” Brooks, who claimed that Depp assaulted him on the set of “City of Lies.”

Global Road filed for bankruptcy in 2018, thereby shielding the company from debt collectors. The lawsuit against Depp was presumably settled out of court, because it never went to trial. Open Road Films was revived in 2019 under new ownership. Meanwhile, “City of Lies” was shelved until Saban Films purchased the rights to the movie and released the movie in 2021.

It’s easy to see why “City of Lies” wasn’t considered a priority release by its original distributors. It isn’t a terrible film, but it’s a terribly monotonous one, with lackluster acting and tacky re-enactments of over-recycled theories about Biggie Smalls’ murder. “City of Lies” throws in some unnecessary fictional characters to bring more drama to the story. Christian Contreras wrote the “City of Lies” screenplay, which is based on Randall Sullivan’s 2002 non-fiction book “LAbryinth.”

The movie, just like the book, takes the angle that former Los Angeles Police Department detective Russell Poole (played by Depp) had the most plausible theory that Smalls was murdered by corrupt LAPD cops who were working as off-duty security for Marion “Suge” Knight, the founder of Death Row Records. Knight and Death Row (which was the Los Angeles-based record label that Shakur was signed to when he was murdered) were involved in a bitter East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry with Sean Combs, the founder of the New York City-based Bad Boy Entertainment. The Notorious B.I.G. (a Brooklyn, New York native whose real name was Christopher Wallace) was signed to Bad Boy. The media often made it look like The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur were enemies, when the two rappers actually were friends early on in their careers until their record label bosses started feuding with each other.

“City of Lies” opens with a scene that takes place on March 18, 1997, in North Hollywood, California. An undercover LAPD cop named Frank Lyga (played by Shea Whigham) gets into a road-rage incident with a guy in a SUV over the type of music that is loudly playing in the SUV while both are stopped next to each other at a traffic light. There are racial undertones in their argument because Lyga is white and the other driver is African American.

The SUV driver starts to threaten Frank and chase after him in the car. During this car chase, Lyga shoots and kills the other motorist, who crashes his SUV into another car. It turns out that the other driver was also an undercover LAPD cop. His name was Kevin Gaines (played by Amin Joseph), and his alleged connection to the Biggie Smalls murder case is explained later in the movie for people who don’t know already.

Poole is called to the scene of Gaines’ death. Lyga claims he killed Gaines in self-defense. But in the wake of the 1992 riots over the Rodney King trial verdict, the LAPD does not want a repeat of these riots. Gaines’ family files a $25 million wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles. This lawsuit might or might not have affected how the LAPD investigated Gaines’ alleged involvement in the Biggie Smalls murder.

It’s not the best way to start off “City of Lies,” which is mostly about how retired LAPD detective Poole teamed up with a TV news journalist named Darius “Jack” Jackson (played by Forest Whitaker) in 2015 to re-examine the Biggie Smalls murder case. Poole left the LAPD in 1999 to start his own private detective agency, where he continued to investigate the Biggie Smalls murder. Although most of the characters in “City of Lies” are based on real people and the characters keep the names of their real-life counterparts, Jackson is a fictional character who works for the fictional American World Network, which is supposed to be like CNN.

Jackson is a character fabricated for this movie so that he can be a sounding board for Poole’s theories and to do a lot of the legwork of investigating that Poole might not be able to do because of Poole’s alienation from the LAPD. Jackson seeks out Poole at Poole’s cluttered and dingy apartment/home office because Jackson is doing a retrospective special on the Notorious B.I.G. and he wants to possibly interview Poole for it. When Jackson arrives unannounced at Poole’s apartment, he finds the door unlocked and enters. The unlocked door is a small detail that doesn’t ring true, considering that the movie goes out its way throughout the story to show how paranoid Poole is.

Poole surprises Jackson by pulling a gun on him. It didn’t help that Jackson showed up unannounced. After the former cop sees that Jackson isn’t a threat, Jackson explains why he’s there and reminds Poole that he actually interviewed Poole years before, for a documentary called “East vs. West,” about the 1990s East Coast/West Coast rap rivalry. Jackson proudly mentions that the documentary won a Peabody Award, but Poole isn’t impressed.

Poole, who is divorced and lives by himself, has his apartment walls covered in clippings and other items related to Biggie Smalls and the unsolved murder. In conversations with Jackson, it becomes very apparent that Poole has been so obsessed with the case, it’s cost him his job at the LAPD (he quit under a cloud of discontent after being suspended) and he lost his family over it. Poole’s wife divorced him, and he is estranged from his son Russell Poole Jr. (played by Joshua M. Hardwick), who is a minor league baseball player.

Sure enough, this hackneyed movie has a subplot of Poole pining for his lost relationship with his son. There’s a scene of him watching Russell Jr. during baseball practice, but keeping his distance because there’s too much bad blood between them. Jackson is with Poole as they watch Russell Jr. in the stands.

There are also a few flashbacks to Poole and his son in happier times when Russell Jr. was a 6-year-old child (played by Antonio Raul Corbo) and they did father-son activities, such as fishing. Poole also has an adult daughter (played by Ashleigh Biller), who isn’t even given a name in the movie. Meanwhile, the movie never shows anything about Jackson’s home life.

“City of Lies” goes back and forth between showing how Poole was on the original LAPD investigation team in the Biggie Smalls murder case in 1997, and how he’s still investigating the case as an under-funded private detective in 2015. Poole was also part of the internal affairs investigation over the 1997 shooting death of LAPD police officer Gaines by fellow LAPD cop Lyga. “City of Lies” references the LAPD Ramparts scandal, which involved some of the same cops who were connected to the Biggie Smalls murder. One of those cops was Rafael Pérez (played by Neil Brown Jr.), who was accused of being a member of the Bloods, a gang affiliated with Death Row founder Knight.

Other LAPD characters in the story who worked on the Biggie Smalls murder case in the late 1990s include Detective Fred Miller (played by Toby Huss), who was Russell’s closest co-worker on the case, and Detective Varney (played by Michael Paré), who gets scolded by Miller for saying that Biggie Smalls was behind Tupac Shakur’s murder. Other law enforcement officials who are part of the story include City Attorney Stone (played by Louis Herthum) and FBI Agent Dunton (played by Laurence Mason), who is undercover as a street thug connected to Death Row chief Knight. The movie is a bit heavy-handed in depicting Poole as the only LAPD cop willing to take down some of his colleagues if he thought they were murderers in cases that he was investigating.

In 2015, the LAPD cops that Jackson has to deal with include Commander Fasulo (played by Peter Greene) and Lieutenant O’Shea (played by Dayton Callie). These cops have written off Poole as a crazy loose cannon. However, Jackson isn’t so sure, and he begins to believe that Poole could be right about the LAPD being involved in some kind of cover-up to protect corrupt cops who might have been involved in the murder.

If you believe the main theory presented in the movie, a rogue LAPD cop named David Mack, nicknamed D-Mack (played by Shamier Anderson), was one of the key people with direct knowledge of the Biggie Smalls murder. Mack’s involvement is a theory that has already been widely reported, but it won’t be revealed in this review, since some people watching the movie might not know the theory. In real life, Mack was arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison for a December 1997 bank robbery of $722,000 in Los Angeles. The bank robbery is re-enacted in the movie.

Just as Poole ran into problems with his superiors for believing that the Biggie Smalls murder was a conspiracy among corrupt LAPD cops working for Knight, so too does Jackson get pushback from his boss named Edwards (played by Xander Berkeley) because Jackson wants to present this theory in the TV special. Jackson getting stonewalled by his boss is somewhat of an unbelievable part of the movie, because this theory was widely reported long before 2015, so Jackson really wouldn’t be reporting anything new. In the world of “City of Lies,” viewers are supposed to forget all of that and believe that Jackson will be breaking this news on TV for the very first time.

“City of Lies” includes cheesy re-enactments (some parts in slow-motion) of the Biggie Smalls murder, which happened after he left a Soul Train Music Awards after-party at the Petersen Automotive Museum. He was a passenger in a SUV that was at a stoplight when he was shot by someone in a car that pulled up to the SUV. The role of Biggie Smalls is played by Jamal Woolard, who’s played the rapper in multiple films, including the 2009 biopic “Notorious.” An eyewitness named Tyrell (played by Dominique Columbus), a character fabricated for the movie, is interviewed in 1997 flashback scenes.

And just so the audience knows that “City of Lies” was approved by the family of Biggie Smalls/Christopher Wallace, his mother Voletta Wallace (portraying herself) has a cameo in a scene where she meets with Poole and Jackson in a diner. She thanks Poole and Jackson for clearing her son’s name when there were rumors that The Notorious B.I.G. was involved in the murder of Tupac Shakur. The only purpose of this scene is so people see that Voletta Wallace considered Poole to be an ally when it came to investigating the murder of Biggie Smalls.

“City of Lies” is very much told from Poole’s perspective, because the flow of the movie is frequently interrupted by his voiceover narration where he spouts some hokey lines. After the opening scene where Poole is called to the scene of LAPD officer Gaines’ death, Poole says in a voiceover about Gaines’ death and Biggie Smalls’ death: “I didn’t connect the two at first, but when I did, I lost everything that mattered. That day, on that street corner, the labyrinth opened.”

Later in the movie, Poole says in retrospect of how the LAPD was investigating Gaines’ death: “The ghost of Rodney King was still haunting the city, so there was only one way this was going to end. I was the only idiot to think otherwise.” When Poole and Jackson meet in Poole’s apartment for the first time, Jackson asks Poole directly: “Who shot Christopher Wallace?” Poole replies: “I don’t know. I had a theory, and my investigation was ripped out from under me.”

You get the idea. “City of Lies” is about portraying Poole as a noble but very flawed martyr for his theory. The problem is in the the way it’s presented in “City of Lies,” which oversimplifies things and makes it look like Poole is the only person who had this theory and the only one to uncover key evidence in this theory. But by his own admission, what he uncovered wasn’t enough to solve the murder.

By the time Jackson meets Poole in Poole’s apartment, the former cop is jaded and distrustful, but Jackson’s interest in the case seems to renew Poole’s spirit and he gradually learns to trust Jackson. But the movie also spends a lot of time on flashbacks of Poole working on the case in 1997, and Jackson retracing Poole’s investigative steps instead of trying to look at other theories too. It’s lazy journalism that shouldn’t be glorified in a movie.

Depp and Whitaker have a lot of talent in other films. Unfortunately, they aren’t very interesting together in “City of of Lies.” The direction of the movie makes everything look fake. The actors playing cops look like actors, not cops.

And some of the re-creations of people in the rap music industry look awkward, as if these scenes were created by people who only know about hip-hop culture from watching music videos. When the release of “City of Lies” was originally cancelled in 2018, movie audiences didn’t seem to know or care that much. And now that “City of Lies” is available, it’s easy to see why this movie is so inconsequential and forgettable.

Saban Films released “City of Lies” in select U.S. cinemas on March 19, 2021. The movie’s release date on digital and VOD is April 9, 2021.

Review ‘Silk Road’ (2021), starring Jason Clarke and Nick Robinson

March 29, 2021

by Carla Hay

Nick Robinson and Alexandra Shipp in “Silk Road” (Photo by Catherine Kanavy/Lionsgate)

“Silk Road” (2021)

Directed by Tiller Russell

Culture Representation: Taking place in Baltimore, Austin, San Francisco and briefly in Utah and Australia from 2010 to 2013, the crime drama “Silk Road” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: Based on real events, a rebellious young man becomes a multimillionaire after starting a darknet website called Silk Road, which becomes a popular destination to buy illegal items, and he becomes the target of FBI and DEA stings after bragging about the website in media interviews.

Culture Audience: “Silk Road” will appeal to people who are interested in true crime movies that have good acting but are ultimately predictable and formulaic.

Jason Clarke and Darrell Britt-Gibson in “Silk Road” Photo by Catherine Kanavy/Lionsgate)

Even if you didn’t know that the crime drama “Silk Road” is based on a true story, it’s very easy to see within the first 10 minutes of the film that the main character is going to get busted for something major and illegal. “Silk Road” (written and directed by Tiller Russell) is the dramatic retelling of what happened when a brash tech entrepreneur named Ross Ulbricht launched a darknet website called Silk Road as an online marketplace to sell illegal items through cryptocurrency—just because he didn’t feel like working in an honest job.

It’s a tale of hubris and greed that’s somewhat oversimplified in this film. “Silk Road” has solid performances from most of the cast members, but also too many eye-rolling moments of melodrama that were obviously fabricated for the movie. The movie gets a lot of elements wrong in how the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) investigated this case.

Most people who’ve heard of Silk Road associate it with sales of illegal drugs. However, the website was also known for many other types of sales, such as illegal weapons, stolen identity information and even the services of assassins. When Ulbricht was arrested in San Francisco in 2013, at the age of 29, Silk Road had been operational for two years, and his net worth was estimated at $28 million, according to Forbes.

In 2015, Ulbricht was convicted of money laundering, computer hacking, conspiracy to traffic fraudulent identity documents and conspiracy to traffic narcotics by means of the Internet. That same year, he was sentenced to a double life sentence plus 40 years without the possibility of parole. Ulbricht and his supporters have been trying to get his prison sentence reduced.

All of this information has been widely reported. And therefore, many people watching this movie will already know what happened to Ulbricht and his punishment in real life. Viewers of “Silk Road” will mainly watch out of curiosity to see what led to Ulbricht’s rapid rise as a cybercriminal and how it all came crashing down on him.

However, the “Silk Road” movie spends almost as much time on the story of a fictional DEA agent named Rick Bowden (played by Jason Clarke), who ends up playing a “cat and mouse” game in his quest to bust Ulbricht. Nick Robinson portrays Ross Ulbricht with the expected mix of cockiness and insecurity that’s typical of people who commit these audacious crimes. The Rick Bowden character, who has a quick temper and a troubled soul, is supposed to be a composite of real-life law enforcement agents who worked on the Ulbricht investigation.

Clarke is a very good actor, but the movie’s deep dives into Rick’s personal life, including his alcoholism and marital problems, just seem superfluous and don’t leave much room to answer a lot of questions about Ulbricht. Do viewers really need to know that Rick has a special-needs daughter at home and is worried about how to pay for tuition to a private school that can better handle her needs? No.

There’s a disclaimer in the movie’s intro that cheekily reads: “This story is true. Except for what we made up and changed.” Writer/director Russell’s “Silk Road” is based on David Kushner’s 2014 Rolling Stone magazine article “Dead End on Silk Road: Internet Crime Kingpin Ross Ulbricht’s Big Fall.” This movie is not to be confused with director Mark de Cloe’s 2017 Norwegian “Silk Road” movie that covered the same topic.

In the movie’s opening scene, which takes place in San Francisco in 2013, Ross makes his way to a public library as he says in a voiceover: “For years, I was frustrated by what seemed to be insurmountable barriers between the world as it is and the world I wanted. So, I began making a website where people could buy and sell anything anonymously.”

Ross continues, “Silk Road is about something much bigger than thumbing your nose at ‘the man.’ It’s about taking back our liberty. As corny as it sounds, I just want to look back on my life and know I did something that helped people.” As he sits down at a library desk with his laptop computer, Ross gets a phone call. And then, the movie goes into flashback mode. It’s at this point you know that the movie will go back to this library scene because it has something to do with his arrest.

“Silk Road” jumps back and forth in the timelines for Ross and Rick, as if to show how these two men’s lives eventually collide. (The movie takes place from 2010 to 2013.) In 2010, Ross was a well-educated, aspiring entrepreneur living in his hometown of Austin, Texas. He was a graduate of the University of Texas at Dallas (he graduated in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in physics) and Pennsylvania State University (he graduated in 2009 with a master’s degree in materials science and engineering), but his career was floundering with some failed business ventures, including a mobile bookstore called GoodWagon.

During this time in his life, Ross declared himself to be a Libertarian. He was also a devotee of the iconoclastic political theories of Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. As Ross smugly explains to someone at one of the many parties he’s depicted as going to in the movie: “Every action that we take outside of the government control strengthens the market and weakens the state.”

He also imparts this philosophy that he believes in passionately: “The state cannot legislate what a person can and cannot do. It’s un-American.” And later in the movie, Ross repeats to people closest to him what he believes about himself: He thinks he was destined to change the world. Is it any wonder that this guy thought that the law didn’t apply to him?

It’s at one of these parties in Austin that Ross meets Julia (played by Alexandra Shipp), a student at the University of Texas at Austin who shares Ross’ love of partying. (The Julia character is based on the real-life Julia Bates.) She’s intrigued by his self-assured ways. And they quickly become lovers, by hooking up on the same night that they meet. When he tells Julia what his philosophies on life are, Julia’s response is, “Seriously? I fucked a Libertarian.”

Meanwhile, in 2010, as Ulbricht was planning to “change the world,” DEA agent Rick Bowden is shown in Baltimore trying to get his life back on the right track. Fresh out of rehab for alcoholism and a stint in a psych ward, Rick is cranky when he makes his way to a convenience store, where he tries not to stare at the liquor on sale. Rick is looking disheveled and rough around the edges, as if he no longer cares about his physical appearance.

At the convenience store, Rick sees a confidential informant named Rayford (played by Darrell Britt-Gibson), who’s happy to see Rick. But Rick isn’t thrilled to see Rayford, especially when Rayford loudly mentions that he heard that Rick was recently in rehab and a psych ward. When Rayford notices Rick’s standoffish demeanor and says, “I thought we were friends,” Rick growls in response: “I have no friends. I have informants.”

The movie eventually reveals (but does not show in flashbacks) that Rick had a meltdown during a drug bust in Puerto Rico (he called a crime boss a “Mongloid”), and this meltdown sent him over the edge and eventually into rehab. Because he’s now been labeled as a loose cannon, Rick has been reassigned to work in the DEA’s cybercrimes unit. He argues with his supervisor Johnny Morales (played by David DeLao) about the transfer, but Johnny tells him that the decision was made by his superiors and there’s nothing he can do about it.

It’s a transfer that Rick hates, because he thinks it’s a demotion and a wimpy office job. He prefers to be out in the field as an undercover agent. And to make matters worse, Rick doesn’t even know how to use a computer and he has to teach himself. This part of the movie is very far-fetched. It’s as if we’re supposed to believe that the DEA couldn’t be bothered to train Rick in computer skills.

Rick is also annoyed that his new supervisor in the cybercrimes unit—a 26-year-old guy named Shields (played by Will Ropp)—is young enough to be Rick’s son. Shields knows that Rick is practically computer illiterate, so he tells Rick in a condescending manner that Rick should think of this reassignment as a way to coast on the job and collect an easy paycheck. But hard-driving Rick can’t be that complacent. Needless to say, Shields and Rick clash with each other in this story.

Meanwhile, back in Austin, the relationship between Ross and Julia heats up and it becomes serious enough where they end up living together and she meets his parents. In one of the better scenes in the movie, Ross and Julia have dinner with Ross’ parents at the parents’ house. This scene gives a lot of insight into his family dynamics and what might have driven Ross to become an antisocial criminal.

During this dinner, Ross’ father Kirk (played by Mark Silversten) doesn’t hold back on belittling Ross in front of Julia. Kirk expresses his disappointment in Ross not being able to find a steady career path. Ross has a pattern of coming up with business ideas, sometimes launching these businesses, and then giving up when things don’t happen as quickly as he’d like. And that pattern has led his father to lose respect for Ross. Ross’ mother Lynn (played by Beth Bailey) is portrayed as someone who’s more understanding and not as judgmental as her husband is about Ross’ business failures.

Based on this “meet the parents” dinner scene, it’s easy to speculate that one of Ross’ motivations to start Silk Road was to get rich quick to impress a lot of people, including his father. Sure enough, shortly after that dinner, when a scowling Ross walks away from the house with Julia, he comes up with the idea for Silk Road. And almost immediately, the website because a darknet sensation. It isn’t long before Ross is making millions from Silk Road.

Julia and Ross’ close friend Max (played by Daniel David Stewart) know about Ross’ illegal activities and express their concerns to him, but Ross ignores their warnings that he could get arrested. As Ross says, “The war on drugs is a farce.” In the movie, Julia and Max are portrayed as stoners who prefer to have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude when it comes to Silk Road.

Just as in real life, the movie shows that Ross used the alias Dread Pirate Roberts (the name of a character in “The Princess Bride” fantasy novel and movie) as his Silk Road persona. Ross doesn’t call attention to himself by lavishly spending his fortune. Just like in real life, the movie shows that he continued to live in a modest apartment up until the day of his arrest.

However, Ross made the mistake of giving an interview about Silk Road to the gossip website Gawker. He did the interview based on an impulsive suggestion by Julia, who knew the Gawker reporter personally. The reporter, whose name is Adrian Chen (played by Walter Anaruk), does the interview by phone, and Ross obviously doesn’t use his real name for the interview. But Ross gives enough information about Silk Road so that it will be easy to find.

The subsequent publicity from the Gawker article and coverage by other media outlets made Silk Road more popular than ever and Ross made millions more in revenue. But it came at a very steep price. You can’t really have an “underground” website if it’s getting a lot of media coverage. And so, law enforcement inevitably started investigating Silk Road.

In an obviously contrived part of the movie, Rick ends up enlisting his informant Rayford to teach him more about darknet activities. The movie makes it look like Rick never even heard of cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin until Rayford told him. Seriously, what people watching this movie are going to believe that a DEA agent is that clueless? And then, there are the inevitable scenes of Rick trying out Silk Road himself by buying illegal drugs off of the website as a test to see how Silk Road works.

Rick feels territorial about wanting to get the most credit for busting the owner of Silk Road, so he’s not very cooperative when the FBI also does its own investigation. Two of the FBI agents who are part of the sting include Chris Tarbell (played by Jimmi Simpson) and Kim Yum (played by Jennifer Yun). Rick also doesn’t want to share too many details about his investigation with his boss Shields, because he thinks Shields will ruin Rick’s chances of completing the investigation.

Meanwhile, there’s an entire subplot about Rick’s shaky marriage to his wife Sandy (played by Katie Aselton), a nurse who wants to continue to be loyal to and supportive of him, but he makes it difficult with his erratic ways. They have a daughter named Edie (played by Lexi Rabe), who is about 7 or 8 years old and has a learning disability. It’s hinted at in the movie that Sandy and Rick have been separated in the past, and not just because he was in rehab.

Edie has an opportunity to get a scholarship to a private school that’s better-equipped to teach special-needs kids. Rick becomes so consumed with the Silk Road investigation, that it puts more strain on his marriage. There’s a scene where Rick’s workaholic ways result in him blowing a chance for Edie to get that school scholarship because he skips a meeting that he and Sandy were supposed to have with school officials.

Ross’ obsession with Silk Road also causes problems in his personal life, as Julia becomes fed up with Ross spending more time locked in a room with his laptop computer than paying attention to her. At one point in the story, Ross goes to Australia, where he is visited by his younger sister Cally (played by Raleigh Cain), who sees that Ross is preoccupied and hiding something, but she’s kept in the dark about his illegal activities.

Ross eventually relocates to San Francisco. And one of Ross’ main Silk Road sellers named Curtis Clark Green (played by Paul Walter Hauser), who lives in Utah and uses the online alias Chronic Pain, plays a key role in Ross’ downfall. The movie makes it look like Rick orchestrated the sting that eventually led to Ross’ arrest.

By spending so much time on the personal problems and office politics of DEA agent Bowden, “Silk Road” gets distracted and doesn’t provide a lot of details that would have improved this movie. For example, there’s not much insight into how Ross was able to set up his Silk Road business so quickly. One minute he’s talking about selling illegal things on the Internet. The next minute, Silk Road has launched with no explanation for how he was able to get such a large network of sellers—the people who listed their items for sale on the website and were responsible for mailing these items to customers.

The direction of the movie also takes a ludicrous turn when it tries to make it look like Rick going “rogue” was the reason why the investigation progressed in the way that it did. In reality, a DEA agent would have a hard time keeping the sheer amount of work needed for this investigation a secret from a supervisor and other co-workers. And the movie has an unnecessary subtext that Rick has a personal resentment toward millennials (based on some demeaning comments he makes), which is one of the motivations for him to take down Ross.

However, one of the things that “Silk Road” writer/director Russell does get right is including solid counterpoints to Ross’ constant claims that he was operating a “victimless” business. The movie mentions drug fatalities that came directly from drugs bought on Silk Road. There’s really no telling how many people died in other ways because of Silk Road transactions, but Ross is portrayed in the movie as not too concerned (or in a lot of denial) about people getting hurt by Silk Road.

Unfortunately, the movie missed an opportunity to have more exploration of who else profited from Silk Road, since the website required a vast network of people for it to become as huge as it was. Ulbricht might have been the mastermind, but he had plenty of help along the way. And that would’ve been a more fascinating story than the typical “burnout/workaholic cop out for revenge” story arc that takes up so much screen time in “Silk Road.”

Lionsgate released “Silk Road” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on February 19, 2021. The movie was released on Blu-ray and DVD on February 23, 2021.